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Mother Country’: An Exchange

In response to:

Is Britain 'Befouled'? from the November 23, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Mother Country, [NYR, November 23, 1989] M.F. Perutz accuses me of insubordination, dismissing my views on thorny and contentious subjects with statements that begin, “in fact.” However, though the tone of his review conceals it, there is an area of factual agreement between us so significant that the weary business of disputing sources and authorities need not detain us The only real issues between us are whether a quarter ton of plutonium sludge lying off populous coast, and entering the human on environment continuously, is anything to be concerned about, and whether the sharply elevated rates of leukemia and cancer along that coast bear on the question of the significance of plutonium contamination.

Mr. Perutz’s argument, an argument which this eminent man clearly intends as a daunting and chastening demonstration of the scientific mind in action, suggests that scientific discourse is not what it claims to be, or what we must all wish it were. His essential tactic is to dissociate radiation from cancer and environmental damage, and to imply that an unsavory mix of hysteria and ignorance is the whole cause of my indignation. Literature on the subject reflects an impressive consensus about the impact on tissue of ionizing radiation, the kind given off by plutonium. The studies of the effects of natural radiation on populations in the Rocky Mountains cited by Mr. Perutz should surely not be assumed to be relevant in any straightforward way to calculating the effects of nuclear accidents and contamination. Populations living in the region where Sellafield has made radiation levels abnormally high have a markedly increased incidence of leukemia, as Mr. Perutz tells us himself. So if anything to the point is suggested by relatively low rates of cancer in the Rocky Mountains, it is surely that natural radiation and plutonium impact on human health differently.

And look at what Mr. Perutz concedes: Britain reprocesses wastes from its own and foreign civil reactors, and, in the course of producing plutonium, flushes plutonium into the sea, where a quarter ton of it has now accumulated. Plutonium and caesium 137, the only materials Mr. Perutz chooses to talk about in any detail, “were expected” to have no harmful effect because one is insoluble and the other highly soluble in water. After thirty long years these expectations were at last found to have been disappointed—there is plutonium in the surf and the wind, plutonium is highly concentrated in fish and shellfish, which people are allowed to eat. Children in the region of the plant develop leukemia at a rate ten times the national average. A government committee has considered that exposure to plutonium is a “conceivable explanation.” The government concealed information about the Windscale fire in 1957. The factories at Sellafield have produced misleading information about their discharges. When radioactive effluent is found on the coast, the government must be told to warn the public and to clean it up. The plant is shoddily built and technically primitive, characterized by “scandalous malpractices” which have shaken public confidence. The functioning of the plant through its whole history has been based on naive assumptions about the “harmful biological effects of radiation and the possible buildup of radionuclides in living creatures.”

This is a modest statement of the case against Sellafield, and yet it confirms the character I give the plant in Mother Country sufficiently well to suggest that my use of sources was judicious and appropriate. Anyone who researches the issue in the British press will find an attitude very like Mr. Perutz’s, staunchly supportive despite all. What Mr. Perutz disputes—and all the plant’s defenders ever dispute—is the importance of the plutonium contamination of Britain’s coast, not the fact of it.

Mr. Perutz says “without knowing how much these discharges had added to the natural radioactivity that surrounds us, I had not been able to judge how dangerous they were.” To dilute these emissions in theory—as they are not diluted in fact—with the volume of an entire sea, or a vast population, is characteristic of the literature of apology with which Mr. Perutz buttresses his essay. It would be possible, using this kind of reasoning, to dismiss the importance of the Great Fire of Chicago by proving that its effect on the temperature of the rest of Illinois eluded reliable measurement. Sellafield is a plutonium factory which brings radioactive wastes in huge quantities across Europe and across the Western Hemisphere from Japan, and then ships finished plutonium back again. The dangers the plant poses are not on the one hand local, nor on the other hand of a kind to be attenuated and dispersed so that they can properly be spoken of as percentages of “doses.” Only consider the consequences of accidents and diversions, and the implications of the fact that there is a vast demand in the world for bomb-grade plutonium, and a government eager to supply this demand. The billions of dollars now being spent at Sellafield are German and Japanese investment which will allow England to absorb and reprocess still more foreign waste. Whether this expansion will result in lower levels of contamination of the sea from that site time will tell. One must hope the new facilities are based on sounder assumptions than have governed the plant up to this point, and that those responsible will monitor to correct for a demonstrated tendency toward unjustified optimism. In the best circumstances, the investment represents an expanded global traffic in nuclear waste and nuclear weapons materials. Mr. Perutz has perhaps not considered Sellafield in this light, since he tells us he had not really followed the issue until I brought it to his attention, this despite the many hundreds of articles on the subject that have appeared in British publications over decades. He does not indicate any expenditure to contain the effects of the plutonium already on the sea floor, though it will remain a source of accelerating contamination as it decays to americium, and as the tide and wind continue to bring it ashore. Again, as Mr. Perutz must be aware, the whole range of transuranic elements enters the sea from Sellafield, so his focus gravely understates both the complexity and the scale of contamination.

There is nothing to reassure in his attempting to trivialize the impact of a bomb factory by comparing it with the damage done by the detonation of bombs. Surely the elevated levels of radioactivity left by weapons testing magnifies rather than minimizing the seriousness of other contamination, since it has narrowed any margin of tolerance. Sellafield contamination differs from the other sources of radiation Mr. Perutz names as its competitors—natural background, residues of weapons testing, and Chernobyl—in that it is increasing, it can be desisted from, and it is done for money.

I “allege,” according to Mr. Perutz, that Britain is “so contaminated with plutonium dust that many children would have eaten it already.” Fair enough. And Mr. Perutz’s review provides grounds for alleging it again. Studies commissioned by the government reported doubt as to the link between radiation exposure and childhood cancer near Sellafield, assuming, as Mr. Perutz clearly does as well, that there is a level of exposure to plutonium at which it is harmless, and that in the environment at Sellafield, despite the quarter ton of plutonium just off shore, and despite the very long history of accidents, deceptions, and bad policies, this safe level of exposure has not been exceeded.

Yet the committee at the Department of Health discussed “another conceivable explanation, that there might be, in children, some special pathway, not found in adults, that would cause traces of plutonium to be selectively absorbed and concentrated in their bone marrow where it would give rise to leukemia.”

In the passage of the report by the Environmental Committee produced to dispel fears that the British government had entertained the thought of feeding plutonium to children, quoted by Mr. Perutz, it is clear that the “special pathway” under discussion is simple ingestion. The report says there was discussion to the effect that “the only way in which incontrovertible evidence could be obtained of the effects of ingestion of contaminated shellfish on the human system was by finding a group which has never eaten shellfish, such as children.” Clearly the committee that is talking about the health effects of ingesting plutonium, in a setting where ill-health in children is the issue at hand. The implication of this discussion is that children are sheltered from the effects of contamination, even though the occasion and the starting point for all these inquiries is precisely the high rate of leukemia deaths among Cumbrian children. When I described these reports in Mother Country, I interpreted them as an exercise in denial. I am not yet ready to retire the phrase “moral aphasia.”

I am not persuaded that those who clothe themselves in the authority of science are to be deferred to uncritically, even by novelists. The reasoning that supports ventures like Sellafield has a distinctly casuistical warp. Doctors do not use the effects of atomic testing to discount the risk of X-rays to unborn children, and it is no more appropriate to use them to discount the importance of dumping plutonium into a populated environment, and into a sea from which fish are taken by many countries. This is especially true when the contamination is done in the course of producing weapons materials liable to being put to uses that will make Sellafield catastrophic by the most indulgent standard.

Marilynne Robinson
Northampton, Massachusetts

M.F Perutz replies:

In my review of Robinson’s book Mother Country I cited three studies showing that the low level of ionizing radiation, additional to natural background radiation, to which people living near the nuclear plants at Sellafield had been exposed, could not account for the high incidence of childhood leukemia there. This conclusion has now been confirmed by yet another careful and comprehensive study. This has revealed instead a marked correlation between high exposure to radiation of men who worked in the plant and leukemia or non-Hodgkin lymphoma in their offspring.1 A team of the Medical Research Council’s Environmental Unit collected the hospital records, family histories, and habits of fifty-two cases of leukemia, twenty-two cases of non-Hodgkin, lymphoma, and twenty-three cases of Hodgkin’s lymphoma2 of patients under twenty-five, born in West Cumbria (the county in which Sellafield lies) and diagnosed there between 1950 and 1985, together with similar data for 1,001 healthy controls matched for sex and date and birth and taken from the same birth registers as the patients. The team assessed the risks to children born within a radius of five kilometers of Sellafield and at increasing distances from there. Five cases of leukemia and two of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma occurred in the inner circle. The fathers of all five cases of leukemia and one of the cases of lymphoma were employed at the Sellafield plant. There was a fall off in the incidence of these cancers to about one third or less on moving further away from Sellafield.

The dose of ionizing radiation received is measured in units called millisieverts. In Britain the average annual exposure to natural background radiation amounts to 2.5 millisieverts. The table below shows that the fathers’ exposure amounted to between 2.5 and 15 times natural background radiation. Exposure was spread over many years, but statistical analysis shows the strongest correlation with fathers’ exposure to more than ten millisieverts during the six months before conception of the children who contracted leukemia. This tallies with the period of two to three months that it takes human sperm to grow and mature.

This is the first discovery of an association between fathers’ exposure to ionizing radiation and cancer in their children. Previous studies had shown that a single dose of diagnostic X-rays of between five and fifty millisieverts administered to mothers expecting twins raised the risk of leukemia among those twins by 15–20 percent compared to non-irradiated twins.3 Among survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the rate of mortality from leukemia was elevated only at much higher doses of 400 millisieverts and above, and no increased incidence of leukemia has been found among the survivors’ children conceived after the explosion of the atomic bombs. The National Research Council’s recent report on Health Effects of Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation4 suggests that workers in the nuclear power industry whose exposure is about twice natural background radiation might be more at risk of contracting cancer than the rest of the population, but because of the small number of workers in the industry and the small number of deaths, the authors of the report could find no evidence of additional deaths from cancer, nor have any excess deaths from leukemia been found among the Sellafield radiation workers themselves.5 I don’t think that it had occurred to anyone before to study the incidence of leukemia among the workers’ children, but such studies will doubtlessly be put in hand now.

There remains a possibility that the cause of the children’s leukemia at Sellafield lies not so much in their fathers’ irradiation from external sources at the nuclear plant, but from internal contamination with ingested or inhaled radionuclides, including plutonium and tritium. The report states that “data on internally incorporated radionuclides will be analyzed when these become available.”6

I suspect this to be a contributory factor, because no increase in cancer rates has been documented in populations exposed to high natural radioactivity of the soil where individuals absorb about 3–4 millisieverts per year in the form of ϒ-rays throughout their lives. Also, production of heritable leukemia in mice needed very much higher doses of radiation (360–5,040 millisierverts) than those received by the Sellafield workers.7 On the other hand, global fallout from nuclear tests in the Fifties and Sixties was followed by peaks in cancer death rates of children aged five to nine in the period 1962–1968. Leukemia deaths for all ages peaked in 1960–1969 and, significantly, were highest in countries with high levels of strontium 90 in the diet.8

The British scientists have examined very carefully all the alternative factors, including those to which Robinson attributed the children’s leukemia: children playing on the beaches or in the hills near Sellafield, children eating shellfish or fish caught nearby or vegetables grown in gardens nearby or vegetables grown on soil to which seaweed picked up from the beaches was added as a fertilizer. They also took into consideration mothers’ ages and social class, antenatal exposure of mothers to X-rays or viral infections during pregnancy, but they could find no correlation between either the environmental factors or any of the others and the incidence of leukemia. One strong piece of evidence was the absence of cancers in children of families who had moved to Sellafield after the children had been born.

In the preceding letter, Robinson condemns the activities of the reprocessing plant at Sellafield. Its original purpose was to make plutonium for the British nuclear bombs. Its present commercial purpose is to reprocess nuclear fuel for electricity generation. Uranium rods which are used to generate nuclear energy have a limited life, because they became contaminated with fission products. Spent fuel rods must either be stored for some hundreds of years until their radioactivity has dropped to safe levels or be reprocessed to separate the radioactive fission products from uranium and plutonium which can then be reused for energy generation. South Korea, which generates half its electricity from nuclear power, stores its spent fuel rods on an uninhabited island. Britain, Japan, and other countries have no such islands and therefore send their fuel rods to Sellafield for reprocessing. Incidentally, there is no longer a great demand for weapons-grade plutonium, as Robinson alleges, but instead a problem of what to do with the vast US and Soviet stocks now that the cold war has ended.

I am no apologist for British Nuclear Fuels having dumped its low-level radioactive waste in the Irish Sea, but I do discount the global dangers that Robinson attributes to that practice. The plutonium has contaminated beaches and a narrow strip of land near Sellafield. To my knowledge, none has been found elsewhere. The caesium 137 that was discharged has raised the radioactivity of the Irish Sea by under one percent and is undetectable elsewhere. Robinson’s accusations of Britain contaminating the world with radioactivity are without foundation. What I accuse her of is not insubordination but misrepresentation.

  1. 1

    Martin J. Gardner, Michael P. Snee, Andrew J. Hall, Caroline A. Powell, Susan Downs, Medical Research Council Environmental unit, Southampton General Hospital, and John D. Turnell, West Cumberland Hospital, Whitehaven, “Results of case-control study of leukemia and lymphoma among young people near Sellafield nuclear plant in West Cumbria,” British Medical Journal, 300, 423, February 17, 1990.

  2. 2

    Leukemia is a malignant proliferation of white blood cells. Lymphoma is the name for various cancers that primarily affect lymph nodes. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma or Hodgkin’s Disease is characterized by enlargement of the lymph glands, of the lymphoid tissue of the liver and other organs, by anemia, and by the appearance of giant white blood cells. Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma is a collective name for all other lymphomas.

  3. 3

    Sir Richard Doll, “The Epidemiology of Childhood Leukemia,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (A) 152, 341, 1989.

  4. 4

    BEIR V., “Health Effects of Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation” (National Academy Press, 1990)

  5. 5

    P.G. Smith and A.J. Douglas, “Mortality of Workers at the Sellafield Plant of British Nuclear Fuels,” British Medical Journal, 293, 845 (1986).

  6. 6

    Gardner, Snee, Mall, Powell, Downs, and Turnell, “Results of case-control study of leukemia.”

  7. 7

    Smith and Douglas, “Mortality of Workers at Sellafield.”

  8. 8

    Strontium 90 is a fission product contained in the fallout from nuclear explosions. Its chemical properties are like those of calcium, so that it gets deposited in the bones. See also “Health Effects of Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation.”

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