Letter: Public risks and double standards

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The Independent Online
Sir: The report of another theory about the reason for leukaemia clusters near Sellafield (28 March) gives a further twist to the debate about risk, mad cows and the environment.

What the Government has said on BSE is that it cannot guarantee that there is no connection between BSE and CJD, and that there may therefore be a risk. This is regarded - at least by the public - as sufficient reason to take action. The burden of proof is with the producers to prove that there is no risk; this is the Precautionary Principle in action.

Most environmental policy, however, operates on the basis that there has to be a proven risk, otherwise the activity will be assumed to be safe. Circumstantial evidence, however strong, is not enough. For example, the Government demands unambiguous scientific proof of a link between air pollution and asthma, or between radiation from nuclear facilities and nearby cancer clusters. The 1984 Black Report into the Sellafield clusters concluded that no link could be proven. But it did not rule out a link, and offered only "qualified reassurance" to residents. The new report again cannot rule out a link. But whereas uncertainty is regarded as a disaster by the beef industry, the nuclear industry regards it as a victory.

If we were consistent, we would ban the source of potential risk - radioactive emissions - just as we banned the sale of beef offal. But in the case of Sellafield the Government allows emissions to continue, and has even increased the permitted level to allow the operations of the new reprocessing plant.

Stephen Tindale

Research Fellow

Institute for Public Policy Research

London WC2