My trip down memory lane….. an elusive virus, dodgy radioactive discharges, and an Emperor who changed his clothes.
The Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group and other cancer charities united on World Cancer Day. The event brought back memories of not only having to face childhood leukaemia within our families, but also the ongoing battle to find out what caused the cancer.
For us living in the shadow of Sellafield in West Cumbria, those charged with researching the cause appear willing to accept the Kinlen virus hypothesis and exonerate Sellafield, while other independent experts simply tell us to “forget this whole infection hypothesis. these hypotheses have arisen primarily to explain away any risk of radiation.”
In July 1988, I was one of 25 Cumbrian families who believed in a link between Sellafield’s radioactive discharges and their children’s leukaemia. They instructed solicitor Martyn Day of Leigh Day & Co to pursue a claim for damages against BNFL At the 1992 London High Court, Sellafield’s evidence on their notoriously unreliable historic discharges went unchallenged.
In 2016, the UK’s Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) once again ‘ruled out’ radiation and Sellafield’s historic radioactive discharges as ‘having been too low’ to cause childhood leukaemias around Sellafield, although consistently stating in their earlier reports that the discharge data was incomplete and unreliable. Nevertheless, in its 17th Report, published 30.9.16, COMARE firmly nailed its flag in favour of Professor Leo Kinlen’s unsubstantiated and hypothetical ‘population mixing’ mast as an infective cause of the childhood leukaemia around the plant, at the same time admitting that, after 30 years, the underlying mechanism ‘has yet to be identified’.
After publication of their 4th Report, in March 1996, COMARE Chairman Bryn Bridges reacted angrily to media criticism that an opinion was presented as a fact :
“It is perhaps not surprising that our conclusions about childhood leukaemia near Sellafield should be rubbished by those (eg Backbiter, EYE 895) whose prejudices appear to prevent them from studying our detailed and exhaustive report. While population mixing (“the sewage and a mystery virus”) may have played some part we specifically state that we are not convinced that it can explain the excess which has persisted over more than three decades. Be that as it may there is no excuse for dubbing us “government radiation scientists”. We are not. As doctors and scientists from universities, hospitals, Research units and cancer charities, we are fiercely protective of our independence.”
Many were of the opinion that ‘if the cap fits … wear it.
Despite the decades-long speculation about the existence of this infective cause, neither a virus nor antibodies to it have been identified. Did researchers therefore not overstep the boundaries of scientific credibility by stating in the 2014 Journal of Cancer that 25-30 years was the time required for the effects of the Kinlen hypothesis to disappear and, with fewer cases diagnosed since the early 90’s, by claiming that children were no longer at risk living around Sellafield? The fact that there had also been a dramatic reduction in radioactive discharges did not even figure as a possible explanation.
So what is population mixing? Quite simple…. well, sort of…… for apparently it is all about a community’s residents – the ‘locals’ – and in the case of Sellafield, the area’s influx of non-residents – the ‘offcomers’ who carry an unknown virus to which the ‘locals’ have no defence and which result in outbreaks of infection with childhood leukaemia as a rare consequence. Newcastle University’s definition that “parents are classified ‘off-comers’ when both are ‘off-comers’ and ‘local’ if they are both ‘local’ , but if one of them marries an ‘off-comer’, then they are both classified as ‘local’, simply complicates the issue ….
Why and when? Given Sellafield’s well documented and appallingly murky history, did this UK virus hypothesis arise to explain away the risk of radiation? By the early 1980’s, following the fallout from the ’57 fire, decades of radioactive leaks, spillages and accidents, the site certainly needed an alternative to radiation. But with the plant’s reputation already in tatters and suffering from wide public mistrust and accusations of secrecy and dishonesty, more bad news was heading their way.
In 1983, James Cutler’s documentary, Windscale, the Nuclear Laundry exposed a 10 fold increase of childhood leukaemias in the village of Seascale and pointed the finger of blame at Sellafield’s radioactive emissions. A national outcry followed, but despite the Government’s spin-doctors going into overdrive to reassure the public, the confirmation of further excesses of childhood leukaemia around Dounreay and Aldermaston put radioactive emissions as the cause firmly back on the agenda.
Just a few weeks later, as if things weren’t bad enough for Sellafield, an unauthorised highly radioactive discharge contaminated local beaches, resulting in the Department of the Environment effectively closing a 40km stretch of the West Cumbrian coastline for six months. With whispers of BNFL privatisation, national and international opposition against the construction of, and projected radioactive discharges from, the new THORP reprocessing plant and graphic Chernobyl reporting, Sellafield was under siege.
To add insult to Sellafield’s injury, solicitor Martyn Day put an advert in the Whitehaven News on 21st July 1988 inviting parents interested in pursuing a claim against BNFL for their children’s leukaemia to contact him. With Leigh, Day & Co formally instructed by some 25 families, Sellafield was about to have to defend itself against the claim of a link between its historical, routine and accidental radioactive discharges and the childhood leukaemias.
A few months later the Kinlen viral hypothesis appeared in the Lancet, but initially attracted little publicity and was dismissed by many as ‘Sellafield wishful thinking’.
So had the nuclear industry already been planning a defence, or was it just a coincidence that this same year, the United Kingdom Committee for Coordinating Cancer Research (UKCCR) had initiated a sub-committee tasked with researching the possible role of ionising radiation in cancer and childhood leukaemia in particular? The five-year programme received a £3 million donation from the UK Atomic Energy Authority, Nuclear Electric, British Nuclear Fuels, Scottish Nuclear and Westlakes Research. UKCCR acting Director the late Professor Sir Richard Doll, Britain’s most eminent cancer epidemiologist wrote “There were no conditions attached to the gift neither in regard to the subjects studied nor to publication”. Both Doll and Kinlen were members of the Committee.
With Kinlen’s virus all but forgotten, in May 1989 the Daily Telegraph carried the story that, according to Sir Richard Doll, radioactive discharges were looking increasingly unlikely as the cause of the childhood leukaemia around Sellafield and had repeated Leo Kinlen’s claim of a link between leukaemia and an unidentified virus. This time the local media went overboard and many Cumbrian families freaked out: “Would a sick child now be shunned?” “Would healthy children still be allowed to mix with them?” Others wondered if they should be worried about new ‘offcomer’ neighbours moving in next door.
So I wrote and asked Sir Richard Doll, who replied there was no risk as this was a virus that could not be ‘caught’. Children with leukaemia were not infectious. He stated:
“I am personally far from convinced that a virus plays any part in the production of childhood leukaemia but the idea is scientifically attractive.’ Only one factor is firmly established as a cause of childhood leukaemia: namely ionising radiation.”
So were we right to presume Sir Richard believed radiation was the “only firmly established factor” as well as the cause? No, we were wrong…… the Emperor changed his clothes and, feted by Sellafield courtiers and gatekeepers, would appear as the ‘star’ epidemiology witness against the plaintiffs in the 1992 High Court case.
Initially BNFL’s ‘dirty tricks’ blocked the families’ legal aid, but on appeal and against accusations of using the Law Society as ‘Judge and Jury’, legal aid was reinstated. With the High Court hearing three long years ahead, it would be crucial for Martyn Day’s team to show that, on the balance of probabilities, radiation from Sellafield was the cause or part of the cause of each leukaemia case. They would have to review environmental radioactivity in Cumbria, Sellafield’s historic discharges, the behaviour of artificial beta emitters introduced into the environment, as well as conventional dose models.
In 1990, while preparing for the leukaemia litigation, the dramatic findings of the ‘Gardner’ report were published. While Sellafield and its workforce panicked, Leigh Day’s court challenge switched its focus to the new report and BNFL briefly considered settling out of court.
For Martyn Day and his team, rather than radioactive discharges, the legal challenge would now be specifically centred on Gardner’s Pre-conceptual Irradiation (PPI) hypothesis – whether someone not exposed to radiation could contract leukaemia because, before their conception, their father had been exposed to it. With the benefit of hindsight, some now wonder if this change of focus had been the right decision.
On 26th October 1992, test cases Elizabeth Reay and Vivien Hope took their claim against BNFL to the High Court of Justice in London to be heard before the Hon Mr Justice French. Both plaintiff’s fathers had received a high radiation dose while working at Sellafield.
The Kinlen hypothesis with its population mixing theory was a cloud that hung over the case, with BNFL failing to produce Kinlen, despite the fact that he was advising them behind the scenes. It was interesting to note that Kinlen, having produced only four studies in the four years prior to the beginning of the trial, produced three studies in the period between the closing of the plaintiff’s epidemiological evidence and the closing of the trial and therefore Martyn Day’s experts were unable to give their full views on Kinlen and his theory.
On January 13th 1993, the 31st day of the trial, Professor Martin Gardner died. Many of those in court were therefore shocked when BNFL expert Sir Richard Doll, while strongly supporting the Kinlen hypothesis, accused Gardner and the whole prosecution team of fixing their report results by suggesting that Gardner had only decided on the parameters of his study once he knew the results. This had been totally denied by Gardner before his death, but Sir Richard Doll, with virtually nothing to support it, persisted with the allegation in the witness box. Could not Doll’s allegation have applied equally to the virus theory?
Elizabeth Reay and Vivien Hope lost their High Court case against BNFL. On 8th October 1993 Mr Justice French ruled that Professor Gardner’s pre-conceptual irradiation theory was not to blame. He also concluded that, on the evidence as a whole, the Kinlen hypothesis had seemed no more plausible.
‘CLEARED!!’ wrote Dr Andy Slovak, Sellafield’s Chief Medical Officer in the BNFL News and accused our opposition to this statement, as ‘rushing to find dafter and dafter reasons for why they aren’t wrong.’ Those daft reasons were that Mr Justice French had not in fact ‘cleared’ BNFL of the allegations that radiation from Sellafield had caused leukaemia in children. And unfortunately, neither had the plaintiffs’ deep suspicions of the accuracy of BNFL’s historic discharges been tested in court.
“This resulted in another savings of weeks, if not months, of court time and a commensurate amount of costs, a saving for which everyone must indeed be grateful,” Mr Justice French later commented in his Judgment, adding:
‘Had it proved necessary to explore this issue to the full, this would have involved calling about ten expert witnesses to give technical evidence regarding the quantities of radionuclides emitted by the various stacks on the Sellafield site, the nature of those radionuclides, the deposition rates within circles round the site drawn at varying distances from the site; the extent to which individual inhabitants were likely to inhale or ingest the various radionuclides directly from the atmosphere or when re-suspended e.g by passing traffic or ingested because taken up by farm produce or seafood.’ It would have been necessary for those experts to testify concerning large numbers of soil samples taken at varying distances from the site, as to the leaching out from soil of those nuclides; as to samples taken from a harbour bottom, from a small lake or tarn, and elsewhere and so on. In the result the need for such an enquiry was greatly curtailed. This was not by reason of any agreement between the parties, it was because the plaintiffs elected to call no evidence upon the issue. “
Leigh Day’s deep suspicions’ regarding environmental dose had been the amount of uranium oxide discharged by the Sellafield plant into the atmosphere. Their experts would have claimed a discharge of some 400 kg while BNFL would have been contending for a much smaller figure, namely 15-20 kg. Had the plaintiffs been too confident they could persuade the Judge to accept the ‘Gardner Report’? And, had they won on the Gardner theory, they believed they would not have needed a victory on the discharges. This was a blow to the ‘follow-on’ cases, which were based on environmental emissions and who never got the chance to have their claim tested in court.
Following Mr Justice French comments in his Judgment, have independent expert scientists explored this issue to the full? Have COMARE’s conclusions to date – that “radioactive discharges were too low” – been based on non-vested interest research, or on BNFL’s own historically notoriously unreliable figures?
Can we have faith today in those radioactive discharge figures, most of which were based on the unchallenged evidence presented to the High Court by BNFL’s scientists under contract to and based at Westlakes Research Institute? Although defunct in 2010, but declared ‘independent’, the Institute was built by BNFL, paid for by BNFL, staffed by BNFL scientists, initially relying primarily for its income on BNFL and carrying out much of the research needed for Sellafield’s High Court defence . As it was difficult to see how any measure of independence from BNFL could be claimed, the Institute caused a great deal of local controversy at the time. Seen as the ‘Sellafield off-site laboratory’, one West Cumbrian commented: “It’s like the fox offering the farmer to look after his chickens”……..
So, without answers, where does that leave those of us still living in the shadow of Sellafield and with Moorside’s construction looming? More population mixing; more radioactive discharges; more radioactive particles on the beaches; and more childhood leukaemias ?
Leo Kinlen’s pondering that, thanks to construction projects at Sellafield over the years, local children have now been thoroughly ‘mixed’, was not particularly enlightening. Neither was the view of COMARE’s Chairman Professor Alex Elliott’s when I quizzed him last November about the health impact of the projected influx of workers for new-build at Moorside. His response, that “There is a current policy to recruit local workers” is little more than wishful thinking, for the developer NuGen has itself confirmed that at least two thirds of their estimated 6000 strong workforce would be ‘offcomers’. Sticking obediently to the official line, Professor Elliot also reiterated that “according to independent science, the discharges from Sellafield are much too low to be the cause of leukaemia”.
As for me, I’m continuing to firmly nail my flag to German radiation expert Dr. Hoffmann’s view that the COMARE scientists are simply wrong: “There is little evidence of the population mixing hypothesis and there is absolutely no evidence of the virus hypothesis. There is neither a virus nor are there antibodies, in other words, forget this whole infection hypothesis. these hypotheses have arisen primarily to explain away any risk of radiation.”
You don’t have to be an Einstein to see the link between decades of high levels of radioactive discharges to the environment, dodgy historic discharge record keeping at Sellafield, the world’s dirtiest plant, and the exceptionally high excess of childhood leukaemias around it – let alone the vested interests of a nuclear industry under pressure and international scrutiny.
CORE health campaigner
Note: Researchers and students may be interested to know that we have digitized our records of the 90-day REAY/HOPE v British Nuclear Fuels plc Court case. The daily court transcripts (PDF) will be available from our website later this year.