Young lives blighted in a nuclear wasteland

The Observer, Sunday April 29, 2001

Today's shocking revelation about a child leukaemia cluster in the Severn Valley sounds a radiation health alert for all who live near nuclear plants. Anthony Browne reports

It was a home video that first made the family realise something might be wrong. As Sue and Allen Langford looked back at the footage of their 18-month-old son Stephen, they noticed he seemed lethargic. He usually raced up and down his favourite climbing frame, but the video showed he now had little interest.

Rapidly Stephen got more and more tired. He would crawl into the centre of the floor and just sit there. He didn't want to walk at all. He eventually went off his food. 'We took him to the doctor four times,' said Sue, sitting in the front room of their house with its view of the River Severn.

From here, when the weather is clear, they can see Oldbury nuclear power station. 'I knew it was something serious, even life threatening - but I had no idea it was cancer.'

Eventually Stephen was diagnosed as having myeloid leukaemia, one of the most unusual and dangerous forms of the disease, so rare there are only a handful of child victims every year in Britain . 'He was in such a bad state by the time he had treatment, I think he only had a week left. It was touch and go,' said Sue.

A new study suggests that Stephen is part of a leukaemia cluster among children in the small town of Chepstow , sitting across the Severn from Oldbury power station. The report claims that children in the town are 11 times more likely to get leukaemia than the national average, and the probability that it is just bad luck is one in a thousand, making it probably the most significant cancer cluster near a nuclear power station in the UK .

Dr Chris Busby, a former adviser to the Irish government over the health effects of radiation in the Irish Sea , said: 'This is a discovery of a new nuclear site leukaemia cluster. The high level of myeloid leukaemia suggests that radiation is the cause.'

The report also catalogues the increased risk of many forms of cancer for all those who live along the Severn estuary. Based on cancer figures over five years for 147 wards in the area, it claims that living near the Severn can make you up to 80 per cent more likely than the national average to get some forms of cancer.

Women living along the coast downstream from Oldbury power station are 50 per cent more likely to die of breast cancer than those living more than five kilometres further inland. The chance of this being just random is one in 50,000.

Overall, death rates for any form of cancer are 18 per cent higher for people living within 5km of the Severn , compared to those living further inland. Men living within 7.5km of Oldbury are 37 per cent more likely to die of prostate cancer than the national average.

Oldbury has two ageing Magnox reactors, and has permission to release a limited amount of tritium, or radioactive hydrogen, into the air and water. But the Severn also has other possible sources of contamination. Just upstream is the now decommissioned Berkeley power station, and downstream is Hinkley A, which was closed after it too was associated with a leukaemia cluster a decade ago. On the Welsh coast, there is the nuclear research company Amersham International.

Anti-nuclear campaigners say that the Severn has more radioactive hydrogen than any other stretch of water in the world.

Dr Busby said: 'It shows that living near the Severn is bad for you. It's probably got the highest concentration of nuclear power stations and sources of radiation in Europe . There is airborne concentration of radioactive particles near the mudflats, which can get into the lungs of children.'

For Stephen's parents, it was clear that something was unusual as soon as he started four horrific - but ultimately successful - rounds of chemotherapy. Doctors at Llangdough Hospital in Cardiff conducted a blood test on him, and were surprised to find he wasn't naturally prone to leukaemia. They also had the house tested for radium, but the reading was insignificant.

In Magor primary school, which Stephen went to, there were just a couple of hundred pupils, but three children had leukaemia, a highly unusual statistical occurrence. The leukaemia study is based on figures from 1974 to 1990, but The Observer has discovered that in the past couple of years in Chepstow, there have been two further cases of childhood leukaemia, making the evidence for the cluster even stronger.

Jim Duffy, of the Shut Oldbury campaign, leapt on the findings: 'It's an atomic bomb in the lap of the nuclear industry. The leukaemia cluster must put a lid on Oldbury's operation.' Michael Holmes, one of the MEPs for the South West, who commissioned the research from EU funds, said: 'If there is a significant risk to public health, Oldbury should be decommissioned, and not allowed to stagger on.'

Since the controversial discovery of a leukaemia cluster around Sellafield nuclear processing plant in 1983, the existence of such clusters has become widely accepted. Whether they are caused by the nuclear industry is still subject to debate.

In 1988 the Somerset Health Authority found a strong correlation between leukaemia in young people and the opening of Hinkley A station in 1964. The new cluster, combined with the increased risks in lung, prostate and breast cancer, suggests that Oldbury could be the most significant finding yet.

The nuclear industry has always dismissed the connection between its emissions and cancer clusters.

It insists - with the backing of the Government's National Radiological Protection Board - that the level of radiation released into the environment is insignificant compared to natural background radiation, and is far too low to lead to cancer.

BNFL, which runs Oldbury, says it can emit only one 400th the level of background radiation. But Busby claims that if the radioactive particles are ingested, even low levels of radiation can spark off tumours.

British Nuclear Fuels dismissed both the new report and its author. Its spokesman, David Cartwright, said: 'He's a professional scaremonger_ he comes up with these things every week.'

Dr Michael Clark, scientific spokesman for the National Radiological Protection Board, also attacked the report and its author: 'Dr Busby has discovered clusters in other parts of the country. But when these have been looked at by professional epidemiologists, they tend to disappear.'

But Busby also has powerful supporters. Vyvyan Howard, professor of toxico-pathology at Liverpool University , said: 'Busby is a good statistician.'

And Professor Ray Cartwright, director of the Leukaemia Research Fund's centre for clinical epidemiology, said: 'His epidemiology is OK. It is important there is a robust debate about this.'

Back in Chepstow, Stephen is now an almost healthy 13-year-old. The leukaemia treatment left his heart weak, and may mean it will be impossible for him to father children.

It has also left his parents wondering why he ended up with this terrible disease. 'We need more research into this. If the power station is a risk, then it ought to close,' said Allen.

 

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