Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

Caution To A Nuclear Wind

An investigation into radioactive pollution in Cardiff

New medical evidence reveals Cardiff to be the latest in a growing list of nuclear locations to develop its own cancer cluster. Seamus O Conner takes a look at the scientific alarm bells peeling across atomic Britain.

24th June 2002

It's a twisted paradox in the making. That a factory producing materials used in medical diagnosis could be responsible for an increase in the incidence of serious disease. And yet, according to medical studies completed at the end of last year, the Nycomed Amersham life sciences factory at Whitchurch near Cardiff is an unhealthy neighbour.

Licensed by the Environment Agency to flush a number of radionuclides into the local atmosphere and sewage system, the factory produces radioactive isotopes for use in the pharmaceutical industry and medical diagnostics. Despite qualifying as the second largest nuclear polluter in the UK after the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in Cumbria, Amersham's radioactive effluence is well within official limits. So, we are told, the local population has nothing to worry about. In fact they should be thankful for the 600 jobs provided by the factory.

So when the Small Area Health Statistics Unit (SAHSU), based at Imperial College London was commissioned to conduct a study of disease in the population round the plant, they were expected to corroborate official assurances.

However, in a report which has gone unrecorded in the national press, the SAHSU team found several significant excesses in disease. For those living between 2 and 7.5km from the factory, SAHSU found a "statistically significant excess risk" of leukaemia in adult females, a "statistically significant excess risk" of congenital abnormalities in both males and females, and a "statistically significant excess risk" in infant mortality in male children. Both the local health authority, Bro Taff, and Amersham plc which runs the factory, rushed to put forward more favourable interpretations of the findings. They suggested possible mistakes in data, claimed the study had underestimated the part played by social deprivation in the statistical findings and even tired to assert that excess cancer incidence in the study was not matched with excess death. However, SAHSU are a well respected research unit, regularly used both by national government and local authorities, and their findings lend considerable weight to growing concerns over the long term effects of radioactive disposal.

The owners of the factory, Amersham plc, began life as a government run enterprise before becoming the first such body to be privatised by Margaret Thatcher. The company gradually grew in size before eventually merging with Norway's Nycomed AS in 1997 to become Nycomed Amersham. In the middle of last year, the company reverted to the name Amersham plc and is now a transnational corporation with 9000 employees world-wide and global sales of £1.4 billion. Its chief executive, Sir William Castell, who draws an annual salary of just under £0.5 million and is also chairman of the Princes Trust, was knighted in June 2000 for his services to the life sciences. However, his company's loyalty to the UK is of course a corporate one. In the same year Castell was knighted, Amersham announced the relocation of its biosciences headquarters from its traditional base in Amersham in Buckinghamshire to the United States. The corporation claimed its increasing financial interest in DNA and gene economics was best served by being situated in America. And yet the UK government, embarrassed by the "dreadful" loss to British science, are still keen facilitate Amersham's operations in the UK. Their willing compliance, however, becomes less tenable the more science turns its attention to the affects of radioactive pollution on the environment.


In March 1999 the Environment Agency Wales discovered that flora and fauna populating the rivers, land and ocean around Amersham's Cardiff factory were becoming heavily contaminated with radioactive substances, particularly tritium. As regular SQUALL readers will be aware, tritium is a highly controversial radioactive pollutant flushed into the environment in large quantities by the nuclear industry. The casual nature with which it is copiously disposed of into rivers and air, continues to escalate despite the lack of research on its environmental impact, and despite growing scientific evidence of its potential harm. [See 'Silent but deadly' SQUALL features] Tritium's biohazard potential is almost solely due to its potential to bind with organic material and become incorporated into living bodies. Its radioactivity is of fairly low energy and therefore, according to current risk model assessments, not much of a biohazard. However, current risk models are based solely on the energy of external radioactivity and not on the potential for internal radioactive emissions to cause mutagenic damage. Increasing scientific evidence suggests tritium, which has a propensity for binding with organic material and becoming incorporated into living cells, may have a significant DNA-altering potential; difficult to assess in the short term and quite possibly manifesting itself across a number of generations.

However, because tritium is produced in such large quantities in nuclear processes, the nuclear industry is always keen to speed up its disposal. Under the Radioactive Substances Act 1993, a company is required to seek licence from the Environment Agency to release any more than 400 beckerels per kg of tritium into the environment. Last year the nuclear industry made a concerted attempt to raise this level to a staggering ten million beckerels per kg via a European directive, though their background manoeuvres were blocked in the UK at the last minute after heavy lobbying from a team of nuclear chemists.

However, obtaining permission from the Environment Agency for tritium disposal into the environment has not proved much of an obstacle for the nuclear industry. Last year, Devonport Management Ltd, the corporate group which owns and runs the nuclear naval dockyard at Plymouth, obtained permission for massive increases of tritium release both into the air (400 per cent increase) and into the River Tamar (700 per cent increase). The Environment Agency also consented to increases in airbourne tritium emission from the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, an operation which has been flushing tritium into the river Thames for years, and which also has an unsourced tritium groundwater contamination leak which has been bleeding, unregulated, into the local environment for years. The Environment Agency also look likely to grant a current application from BNFL for increased tritium release into the local environment from their Magnox reactor at Oldbury in Gloucestershire which already has its own 'unexplained' cancer cluster.


In November 2001, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) carried out an extensive study on the prevalence of organically bound tritium (tritium which binds with organic material in the environment) around Amersham's Cardiff plant and discovered "unexpectedly" high levels.

Tritium concentration in sea fish sampled from Cardiff Bay weighed in at up to 69,500 beckerels per kg, whereas shore crabs and shrimps showed levels of up to 73,000 beckerels per kg. The normal level in marine biota is just 0.02-0.5 beckerels per kg.

Tritium concentrations in trout and barbel taken from the River Taff, which runs near the Amersham factory, also showed far higher than average concentrations; as did eggs, vegetables and food stuff grown nearby. However, using the risk assessment formula adopted by government regulatory bodies to predict the amount of radioactivity which human beings might consume, the FSA stated in its report that consumption levels, even in excessive eaters of particularly contaminated products, would still fall below the principal dose limit. The FSA report categorically stated that, although the tritium build up was "unexpected", the public had nothing to worry about.

In July 2000, however, a local activist and scientist, Hugh Richards, produced a paper claiming direct scientific correlation between child mortality rates in the Cardiff area and tritium release. The paper asserted that the highest number of baby deaths in Cardiff (56 in 1984-85) corresponded with the peak period of tritium release from the factory. The publication produced a flurry of public concern and PR counter activity. The Bro Taff Health Authority, the Environment Agency and Amersham plc, formed a united front to discredit the work and reassure the public that the high levels of environmental tritium were not a danger to the public. However, although it was possible to pick holes with Hugh Richards' methodology, it has not been so easy for the corporate lobby and the local authorities to dismiss the latest work from the Small Area Health Statistics Unit. Since the discovery of cancer clusters around the Sellafield nuclear processing plant in 1983, a series of studies have revealed similar areas of "significant excess risk" in concentric proximity to nuclear installations all over the UK; Dounreay, Oldbury, Harwell and Aldermaston amongst them.

Up till now, the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE), set up by the government as an advisory panel on radioactivity and public health, have argued that current risk model assessments of the biohazard of radioactivity emanating from these nuclear establishments is not enough to cause any health concern. Critics argue the official risk models are grossly inaccurate and that a growing body of medical evidence, including the latest SAHSU study, prove it.

Finally, and somewhat belatedly, COMARE have instigated two fundamental and potentially industry-shaking studies. In their own words: "In response to recommendations in the Third COMARE report, the Department of Health has asked COMARE to advise on which, if any, nuclear installations in Great Britain have incidences of childhood cancer and leukaemia in their vicinity that are significantly outside the distribution seen nationally. COMARE is therefore considering the geographical distribution of cancer to see how the pattern of cases around nuclear installations compares with the national pattern."

On July 31 2001 Environment Minister Michael Meacher responded to heavy lobbying from nuclear chemists working for the Low Level Radiation Campaign and asked COMARE to instigate a scientific consultation exercise on the risk factors posed by internal radioactive emitters like tritium. The COMARE working group will "consider the present models for radiation and health that apply to exposure to radiation from internal radionuclides in the light of recent studies and identify any further research that might be needed.........It will also attempt to reach a consensus on whether the current risk models are valid."

Provided the studies remain genuinely independent of industry lobbying and obfuscation, the Committee's findings could be explosive for the whole issue of radioactive waste disposal and environmental contamination. However may have to wait until 2003 for the results of the investigation into internal emission. How many more Environment Agency licenses for increased radionuclide release into the local environment will have been permitted in the meantime?

The regulation of nuclear activity in the UK is supposedly governed by what is called 'The Precautionary Principle'. This principle states that caution and public safety should prevail as priority number one in the absence of certain science. However, in the haste to facilitate nuclear processing, that caution is quite literally being flushed down drains and thrown to the winds.

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