Experts fall out over nuclear plant risks
Sunday Times Aug 1, 2004
A BITTER row has broken out inside a government safety committee after two of its experts were barred from voicing fears that radiation from nuclear installations poses a greater threat than previously thought.
Government lawyers have blocked a minority finding written by the two from being included in the committee's final report — which follows a three-year investigation into the effects of low-level radiation.
Dr Chris Busby and Richard Bramhall, members of the committee examining radiation risks from internal emitters, believe that the risk of cancer from low-level radiation dangers is greater than realised.
They claim that previous methods of calculating the effects of emissions on people living near nuclear installations have underestimated the risk by a factor of up to 300.
If correct, the study could explain the clusters of cancer and leukaemia cases found close to nuclear installations in north Wales and Essex and near Sellafield in Cumbria. But the claims have divided members of the committee, with some supporting the gagging while others have accused civil servants of censorship. A senior radiation scientist has already resigned in protest and the last meeting of the committee became a shouting match that members feared was going to degenerate into a fist fight.
The-committee's official report — which has majority support — will be published this autumn and says the risk is greater than previously thought, but only by a factor of 10.
Lawyers at Defra, the environment ministry, have sent letters to all 12 members of the committee warning them that they could be sued for defamation if they include Bramhall and Busby's minority report.
Michael Meacher, who set up the committee while he was environment minister in 2001, is furious that not all the experts' views will be represented. "I have written to Elliot Morley, the current environment minister, asking for an explanation," he said.
The committee was created to examine concern that the government's method of estimating the risk of cancer to people living near nuclear installations was inadequate. Such calculations were based on the radiation doses received by casualties from the Hiroshima bomb used against Japan in 1945.
There have long been doubts about such data, partly because they are so old and partly because Hiroshima victims were exposed to a short and very intensive dose of external radiation. By contrast, people living near nuclear sites tend to experience a different form of radiation — suffering small doses over a long period of time from eating or breathing contaminated particles.
Such radiation is thought to do proportionately more harm because it is inhaled or ingested and so can directly attack the body's most delicate organs.
Recognising the complexity of the science, Meacher set up the committee with representatives of the nuclear industry, green groups and independent scientists and asked them to include a range of views in their findings, including any minority reports.
Busby and Bramhall say that since Meacher was sacked the committee has been
taken over by people with pro-nuclear views who have done their best to suppress
"The basis of these calculations is completely wrong and as a consequence people living near Sellafield and other installations have been suffering elevated rates of cancers and all sorts of other diseases," Busby said.
"The other members of the committee and Defra may not agree with our report, but they should still be publishing it."
Some other committee members disagree. They point out that both men are ardent anti-nuclear campaigners and claim that their report was riddled with inaccuracies.
"The extreme views held by these two meant that the committee became completely polarised with members shouting at each other in anger and exasperation," one said. "In the end we could not be associated with a minority report that was factually wrong, so it was referred to the lawyers."
Fears that the committee is being gagged are echoed by Marion Hill, a senior scientist with 30 years' expertise in radiation safety.
Hill, who emphasises that she is not a member of the green lobby, resigned from the committee in February. In her letter of resignation she accused the committee chairman, Professor Dudley Goodhead, and Ian Fairlie, another member of the secretariat, of biasing the report process so that Busby and Bramhall's views were marginalised. She said yesterday: "It's a complete failure when you have a scientific committee that is not allowed to write anything about disagreements over science."