The link between nuclear power and cancer is real, writes Chris Busby, and revealed in the UK’s cancer statistics – if only you look for it. Previous approaches have focused on rare cancers over large, poorly selected populations. But look at common cancers among those most exposed to nuclear radiation, and the statistical evidence is overwhelming.
This week saw the publication in a peer-reviewed journal – Jacobs Journal of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine – of a study which I carried out in 2003 of breast cancer mortality 1995-2002 near Bradwell nuclear power station in Essex.
This is the first of a series of nuclear site cancer studies my colleagues and I have carried out in the last 15 years and which I have now decided to publish in proper scientific journals. In the same journal I wrote an editorial article about the problems of analysing cancer risk near nuclear sites.
Nuclear epidemiology – better choose common cancers, not rare ones
This question has historically been approached through analysis of childhood leukemia age 0-4, believed to be the most sensitive indicator.
But although child leukemia may be a flag for an effect, it has the disadvantages that the background rate is very low (6 per 100,000 children per year) and that nuclear sites (for obvious reasons) are built in sparsely populated areas with few children living near the source of the effect.
Therefore it is difficult to have enough statistical power to show that any effect you find is real and not due to chance, unless you study a large number of nuclear stations over a long period of time. But the German cancer registry did do this and found a doubling of risk in the children inside the 5km ring around all the plants in Germany.
Despite this, the authorities, the government departments, the radiation risk agencies like ICRP, UNSCEAR, BEIR and the UKs own NRPB (which is going through more transformations than a mayfly and is now Public Health England (PHE) after a period as Health Protection Agency (Radiological Protection (HPARP), or by the time you read this, maybe something else) are unconvinced., or by the time you read this, maybe something else) are unconvinced.
The rising trend of nuclear contamination in the Blackwater
The Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, MAFF provided measurements of radioactivity in the environment from 1970 and this continues today with annual RIFE reports. I have every annual report from the beginning on my shelves.
In 1970 there was 1.5Bq/kg Caesium-137 in the mud by the power station. 1976 there was 2.3Bq/kg. In 1977 it was 20Bq/kg. By 1984 it was 78Bq/kg; oysters contained Americium-241 and Plutonium-239. In 1993 there was 17Bq/kg at the pipeline, but the radioactivity had migrated up the Blackwater with 84 Bq/kg at Maldon.
NRPB calculated that the dose to the critical group, using what it believed to be the critical pathway, houseboat dwellers who ate oysters (Yes!) to be 0.01mSv or 1% of the allowed dose limit. (See MAFF 1994 Aquatic Environment Monitoring Report No 42: Radioactivity in surface and coastal water of the Briitsh Isles, 1993. Lowestoft: Directorate of Fisheries Research.)
But these dose calculations are based on the industry-standard radiation risk model of the International Commission on Radiological Protection, the ICRP.
There are persuasive reasons for concluding that this model cannot be used for internal radiation where novel radioactive elements that have a high affinity for DNA end up inside the body through inhalation or ingestion. And the same dose calculations were done for the children, and were unable to explain the leukemias also.
So what can we conclude? First, that studies of adult cancer around nuclear sites should focus on common cancers like breast cancer, or indeed multiple cancers. There is more statistical power.
Second, in such ‘ecological studies’ (where a region is taken as a surrogate for an exposure) the groups must be chosen as a result of determining where the radioactivity ends up, and not through some primitive circle drawing exercise.
This is an important message to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission who have been mulling over protocols for examining risk near US nuclear sites for several years now since they were bounced it by pressure brought to bear on Congress by those people living near the nuclear sites, who can see what is happening to them and their friends.
Writing of which, I leave the last word to a Blackwater local, the Secretary of the Maldon Oyster Fishermans’ Association, Mr B J R Wright, who wrote to the Maldon Standard in April 2001 after our first results came out and were being dismissed by earlier versions of nuclear advocate George Monbiot:
“Trust the experts – what a joke. I find it more than a coincidence that in the last seven years four commercial fishermen who spent years working on the mud flats and fishing outside Bradwell have all had bone cancer. Three have died and I myself have only survived owing to the brilliant staff at Broomfield hospital. I have also been told that commercial barge skippers who regularly plied our river are affected by bone cancer.”
In the same newspaper a few weeks later the headline was:
“Council crackdown on breast cancer; residents urged to take up healthy eating and stop smoking.”