Nuclear waste timebomb threatens future generations

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The Independent Online
Low-level radioactive nuclear waste is seeping into the Welsh water supply. But is it dangerous? Ian Burrell hears the warnings from nuclear physicists and the reassurances from the industry.

Frank Barnaby has spent a lifetime studying both military and civilian nuclear projects all around the world, and right now he has special concerns for the people of Cardiff.

The nuclear physicist and former director of SIPRI, the famous international peace institute in Sweden, believes local people may be at risk of passing on serious medical conditions to future generations because their water supply contains tiny traces of the radioactive material, Tritium.

The radionuclide is used by local company Nycomed Amersham in the manufacture of equipment used by drug companies to develop new products and by medical researchers for studying the activity of cells.

"There is some indication now that Tritium can induce genomic instability. In other words, the radiation can damage the chromosome but the damage may not show up," said Professor Barnaby.

"It now appears that the damage can come in the second, third or even fourth generations." The damage to cells could lead to cancer and other conditions, including Alzheimer's and motor neurone disease. Environmentalists have dubbed Cardiff the Tritium capital of Britain.

Trevor Jones, a Cardiff-based researcher in radioactive isotopes and radiation, said: "Because the energy level of Tritium is so low it is very difficult to measure. In the US it has taken two generations before the effects of Tritium have manifested themselves in cancers or central nervous disorders."

The epidemiologist Professor Alice Stewart, from Birmingham University, is also concerned, after making a study on the long-term health effects of those exposed to the Hiroshima bomb. She said that her latest research, to be published next year, will show that the dangers from low-level ionising radiation are 10 times greater than previously thought. The scientists were all present at a conference in Cardiff yesterday called to discuss possible dangers to the local population from low-level radiation.

The conference was called after it was revealed that Amersham made an application to store 285 drums of radioactive waste on the site.

The company said yesterday that the waste was merely the standard laboratory equipment worn and used by scientists when handling minute quantities of the radionuclides Tritium and Carbon 14.

Spokesman Alan Huw Smith said Tritium was stored in steel jars within steel containers. Although, as a hydrogen, tiny amounts of tritium escaped into the air, the company operated well within agreed safety levels.