Sellafield families lose cancer damages fight: High Court rejects genetic link between disease and nuclear plant. Heather Mills and Ian MacKinnon report on a landmark judgment

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The Independent Online
TWO families yesterday lost their multi-million pound legal battle to prove their children's blood cancers were caused by radiation at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in Cumbria.

In a landmark case which had implications beyond the world-wide nuclear industry, the High Court was being asked to decide that the children's cancers - one of them fatal - resulted from genetic damage; in other words, that the diseases were triggered by their fathers' exposure to radiation - passed on in sperm - while working at Sellafield.

But yesterday Mr Justice French ruled that the scientific study of the cancer cluster at nearby Seascale - upon which the families depended - was unsupported by other and more detailed scientific studies, including one of the children of Japanese atomic bomb victims. There were shortcomings in the research by the late Professor Martin Gardner, an epidemiologist.

Mr Justice French said that while scientists agreed that the Seascale cluster could not be put down to 'chance', neither could it be said to have been caused by mutation to the father's sperm causing a predisposition to the disease - even on 'the balance of probabilities'.

Forty other families had been awaiting the outcome of the case which has taken nearly a year and cost more than pounds 8.5m. Their lawyers will now have to study the judgment, which runs to volumes, before deciding whether or not to also sue British Nuclear Fuels plc, which runs Sellafield.

After the ruling BNFL said the judgment 'will have done much to lift the anxiety from shoulders' of those families involved in the nuclear industry, whose fears had been raised by the allegations of genetic damage. It expressed its sympathy for the families saying: 'We hope for their sake the cause of the disease is soon identified.'

But Martyn Day, solicitor for the families, said: 'This was not a decision to say BNFL were cleared of blame. It was simply that we hadn't been able to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that cancer was caused by emissions in these cases.'

The first of the two test cases was brought by Elizabeth Reay whose 10-month-old baby, Dorothy, died of leukaemia in 1962. George Reay, the baby's father, who died of cancer in the mid- 1980s, had suffered one of the highest radiation doses of any of the Sellafield workers.

The second was brought by Vivien Hope, 28, who has received chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, another blood cancer, diagnosed in 1988. Although there has so far been no re-occurrence it has left her disabled and sterile. Her father, David, was a fitter at the plant for more than 20 years.

Had they won, Mrs Reay would have received pounds 150,000 for the anguish suffered by the loss of her child and Miss Hope pounds 125,000 for pain and suffering.

Mrs Reay, 73, said: 'Sellafield have a long way to go yet to tell the truth, and we have a long way to go to find out the truth.' Miss Hope said: 'I don't know if this fight has been worth it but I'm pleased it's over. I am very disappointed, but I have to accept what the judge says and try to carry on with my life as normal.'

Mr Day said he and his legal team would examine the judgment to determine whether to appeal, but conceded it was unlikely. However, he said other cases in the pipeline, where the emphasis was on radiation in the atmosphere, were likely to go ahead.

Both Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace insisted the judgment could not be used by BNFL to confirm the safety of its new 'Thorp' reprocessing plant at Sellafield, which is still awaiting a decision on whether it can be brought into operation.

Greenpeace said: 'The number of childhood leukaemia cases around Sellafield remains 10 times higher than the national average. BNFL has yet to prove that these facts are not connected.'

But John Kane, convener for 3,200 members of the GMB union at Sellafield welcomed the ruling, saying the union believed there was no link between the cancers and the plant.