Sellafield 'ignored warnings' on workers' radiation doses

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BRITISH Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) failed to act on warnings from its head of safety that it had badly underestimated radiation doses received by workers at Sellafield reprocessing plant, the High Court in London was told yesterday.

The organisation had a 'cavalier' approach towards accuracy and the information it provided was unreliable, Mr Justice French heard.

The allegations were made at the beginning of a test case brought by two families who say their children's blood cancers were caused by their fathers' exposure to radiation when working at Sellafield. This is the first time a British court has been asked to determine an issue of personal injury allegedly resulting from genetic damage. Forty more families are awaiting its outcome, hoping to sue BNFL in turn.

Elizabeth Reay, of Hensingham, Cumbria, whose 10-month-old daughter, Dorothy, died of leukaemia in 1962, is claiming pounds 150,000 damages. Vivien Hope, from Seascale, who developed leukaemia in 1988 but has made a partial recovery, is suing BNFL for pounds 125,000. Mrs Reay's husband, George, and Ms Hope's father, David, both worked at Sellafield.

At the heart of the families' case is a 1990 report by Professor Martin Gardner, of Southampton University, who found that the children of Sellafield workers had an above-average chance of developing blood cancers.

Benet Hytner QC, for the plaintiffs, told the court that the radiation levels to which employees had been exposed in the late 1950s and early 1960s were in fact even higher than Professor Gardner had been told.

In 1960, Huw Howells, health and safety manager at Sellafield, found that radiation monitoring badges worn by workers at the plant were underestimating the doses by about 30 per cent. Mr Howells asked for an official note to be attached to the dose records 'giving a clear indication' that the doses had been incorrectly measured. Mr Hytner said: 'No note appears ever to have been made. Thus Professor Gardner was supplied with doses taken from unamended, inaccurate records.'

He said it was accepted that Mr Reay had received a much bigger lifetime dose than the 384 milliSieverts officially recorded. BNFL concedes that the real figure is 639 mSv; the plantiffs contend that it is even higher, at 709 mSv.

'This is the first example of many where it can be shown that the defendants did not know what they were doing and were somewhat cavalier in their approach to accuracy,' Mr Hytner said.

He said BNFL's own experts estimated that plutonium discharges from Sellafield into the atmosphere until 1984 were far higher than they had previously thought. Nevertheless, documents submitted to the Government earlier this year had contained the original - lower - figures. When required to correct the mistake, BNFL still gave figures at least 20 per cent beneath those the company would set before the court.

Mr Hytner gave details of an unpublished study by Dr Gerald Draper, of the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford. He said the study concluded that the excess of childhood leukaemia in Seascale, the nearest town to the plant, was 'highly unlikely to have arisen by chance'.

Mr Hytner said the plaintiffs would not have to show that BNFL was negligent, merely that on the balance of probabilities radiation from its plant caused the leukaemia. This was not an attack on the nuclear industry, he said, because the levels of radiation emitted by Sellafield in the 1950s were 'unique' in the developed world.

Radiation levels, page 3

(Photograph omitted)

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