Who is seeing mirages at Seascale?

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THE JUDGE'S dismissal of the case brought by the Cumbrians Vivien Hope and Elizabeth Reay against British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) last week does not prove that there is no connection between radioactive emissions and leukaemia in children. It proves only that there is no proof. BNFL has offered no explanation for the stark statistical correlation between the Seascale children and their fathers' work.

What united these children, apart from their leukaemia, was that their fathers had been subjected to high dosages of radiation while they worked at Sellafield. We know that radiation causes leukaemia. We know that these Seascale children's fathers were contaminated before their children were conceived, and we know that radioactive contamination is highly toxic. What we don't know is the cause and the effect that is demanded by the judicial system but still eludes science.

This case has its genesis in the shattering statistics offered in 1990 by the late Professor Martin Gardner, the epidemiologist who studied the childhood cancer clusters in the countryside around the Sellafield colossus. As one scientist put it in the Eighties, the already alarming evidence of a connection between radioactivity and cancer would not disturb the comfortable relationship between the government, unions and employers until it got them 'by the balls'. Professor Gardner's epidemiological research did just that.

All statistical studies of childhood cancers are inevitably small. But his team discovered that this lovely village on the Cumbrian coast was home to children with leukaemia, all of whose fathers had had high doses of radiation while working at the plant.

In addition, BNFL's documents, disclosed to the court, showed that the radioactive discharges were greater than the company had previously admitted.

Sellafield already had an economic credibility gap. Electricity privatisation proved what a series of public inquiries into nuclear power stations had proposed - that the industry was an impossible extravagance. Now there was the ethical challenge, too. If Gardner was right, then the risk to workers was a risk to their children. These genetic implications were new, and the suggested scale of mutation was serious.

Mutations had not been found in research based on the survivors of the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945. Those 'big bangs' had been the basis of the international nuclear industry's safety standards. They still are, though the relevance of the big bang research for industry and medicine, where contamination would be more likely to arise from low doses over a long period, has been challenged by another eminent epidemiologist, Alice Stewart. Her research on the effects of X-rays on foetuses and children in the Fifties showed that low doses across time did not mean less risk. Quite the contrary.

Professor Gardner's evidence, like Alice Stewart's, was resisted. The absence of the same correlations at other nuclear power stations was deemed by some scientists to be proof that he had drawn the wrong inferences from his figures, that Seascale was a statistical phantom. Others argued that different places were, quite simply, different, with other variables.

However, the scientific establishment - the moderate Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment and the Black Committee - has already agreed that Seascale is not a mathematical mirage, that something is going on there.

The industry's critics reckon that the explanation for the clusters is likely to lie in a miscellany of multiple interactions. This implies a quest for complexity, rather than a search for a simple, stable set of safety standards.

The industry's and the court's demand for certainty have so far been doomed to disappointment. Given everything that is now known, however, why did Mr Justice French tilt the the balance of probability in favour of BNFL rather than the victims?

Sellafield is sustained not by science but by politics. A formidable and needy coalition defends it against its scientific sceptics, its green critics and its neighbours like Vivien Hope and Elizabeth Reay: key components are the constituency's Labour MP, Jack Cunningham, and the trade unions. The Federation of Women's Institutes has been bolder in its critique of the nuclear industries than the labour movement. There is no Silkwood at Sellafield.