Dodging the Evidence - Leukemias and Nuclear Power Plants

Marianne Birkby
30 July 2009

The Committee on Medical Aspects of  Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) is a quango that is supposed to be a watchdog on the health issues arising from the activities of nuclear installations in the UK. COMARE's terms of reference are "to assess and advise Government . on the health effects of natural and man-made radiation and to assess the adequacy of the available data and the need for further research".

But how seriously does this body take its responsibilities? Not very, it seems.

A recent authoritative health study commissioned by the German government entitled KiKK (Kinderkrebs in der Umgebung von KernKraftwerken, or Childhood Cancer in the Vicinity of Nuclear Power Plants) found increased leukemias near all German nuclear facilities.  The Environmental Health Sub-Committee of the West Cumbria Site Stakeholder Group, a group that discusses nuclear issues  mainly concerning Sellafield, raised the findings of this study with COMARE and asked for its views. A one-page COMARE briefing was sent by Professor Alex Elliott, the COMARE chairman, and was read out to the May 2009 meeting of the Environmental Health Sub Committee as COMARE's official view. It is likely that other stakeholder groups near other UK nuclear sites were informed along similar lines. However the COMARE briefing was never published on its website.

The West Cumbria group sent a copy of the briefing to an independent consultant, Dr Ian Fairlie. He was concerned that the COMARE briefing generally sought to diminish the KiKK study. In his view, the briefing was unscientific in suggesting that COMARE's lightweight ecological studies had more merit than the powerful KiKK case-control study. It was also less than transparent, as it omitted the findings of relevant epidemiology studies and gave a misleading interpretation of KiKK's comments on confounders.

Dr Fairlie wrote a letter accordingly to the editor of a UK scientific journal (which I cannot name) for publication. The editor contacted COMARE asking about the status of their briefing and was informed that the briefing did not represent COMARE's formal position and that COMARE had not issued a formal statement on the KiKK study. This, in effect, amounted to a withdrawal of the chairman's briefing. It is quite noticeable that despite the KiKK study being squarely within its stated remit, COMARE has still not published any view on the German study.

And the reason is clear: the KiKK study is a major embarrassment to the UK government and its obsession with nuclear power. It  unambiguously and authoritatively found large increases in childhood leukemias near all German nuclear power stations. More important, it found a strong proximity-risk relationship, that is, the closer the children were to the reactors, the higher their cancer risks. The study is partly the reason why the German government is currently not planning any more nuclear power stations. COMARE is staying quiet on this political "hot" potato, despite its duty to do otherwise.

More information about the KiKK study, the withdrawn COMARE briefing, and Dr Fairlie's comments on it can be found here...

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