NIS Update: May 2011


A government advisory committee on radiation and health has concluded that there is no significant evidence of an association between the risk of childhood leukaemia and living in proximity to a nuclear power station.

The latest report from the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) challenges the findings of the influential 'Kinderkrebs in der Umgebung von Kernkraftwerken' study (KiKK: Childhood cancer in the vicinity of nuclear power plants) – a German government investigation which, contrary to COMARE's findings, reported that clusters of leukaemia cases were more likely to be found near nuclear plants.

COMARE's study is based on a geographical data analysis on the incidence of leukaemia and related diseases in children under 5 years of age living within 10 kilometers of 13 nuclear power stations in the UK.  It uses cancer registration data for Great Britain for the period between 1969 and 2004.  The study found an increase of 22% in observed cases when compared to the expected number of leukaemia cases around nuclear power stations.  However, it concluded that this increase was not statistically significant, and that the risk estimate for childhood leukaemia associated with proximity to a nuclear power plant is "extremely small, if not zero".

The study did not investigate the incidence of leukaemias near the Dounreay and Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plants, both of which are linked to known cancer clusters.  COMARE plan to review the evidence for childhood leukaemias at these sites in their next report.  The report did not look at cancer clusters near the Calder Hall nuclear power station either, because of its proximity to Sellafield.  Surprisingly, despite a specific request from government to do so, the study does not include data more recent than 2004.

COMARE's report says: "There is growing epidemiological evidence that childhood leukaemia is linked to infections…either a rare response to a common infection…or a rare response to general exposure to infectious agents…however the biological mechanism underlying these hypotheses remain the subject of considerable scientific debate."  To date no such infectious agent has been identified, and the source, pathway, and receptor for such an agent are unknown, and so this theory remains controversial.

COMARE also reviewed the results of the KiKK study and concluded that they are heavily influenced by cases in the 1980s, compared with later periods when the risks were considered to be lower.  The report also states that the results of the KiKK study are influenced heavily by a known cancer cluster around a nuclear plant at Krümmel, and that potential confounders, such as socio-economic status, were not taken into account.

However, the KiKK report was based on a case control study – a more robust research method that a geographical study of the sort undertaken by COMARE – and the study specifically examined the effect of withdrawing each nuclear site from its analysis.  Even when the Krümmel study was withdrawn from the analysis, risks were found to be significantly increased.  Confounders studied by the KiKK team in a companion study, including socio-economic status, appear to have had little effect on the KiKK findings.

Ian Fairlie, formerly Scientific Secretary to the Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters (CERRIE – an independent committee reporting to the government) described the COMARE report as “poor science” and expressed concern that it had “in a sense cherry picked data” by excluding Sellafield and Dounreay from the study.

Dr Fairlie argued that the COMARE report refutes a clear pattern of epidemiological evidence across the world indicating increased leukaemia risks near nuclear power plants.  
He said that COMARE has rejected the observed 22% increase in the incidence of leukaemia by inferring that, as these findings did not meet a significance test, they were negative.  According to Dr Fairlie a more accurate conclusion would be to say that the study found increases in leukaemia incidence ranging between 22% and 47%; that these increases did not meet the statistical test used by COMARE; but that this could be due simply to the low sample numbers in the study and not to lack of effect.

“COMARE’s Report is regrettable as it may mislead members of the public into thinking there are no increases in leukaemias near UK nuclear power stations when in fact the evidence in the Report itself indicates otherwise”, he concluded.

COMARE has recommended that the Government should keep a watching brief on the risk of childhood cancers in the vicinity of nuclear power stations and recommends that there should be no reduction in maintenance of surveillance regarding the environment and public health, which it says will be particularly important in the light of the government's proposals to build new nuclear power stations. "It is clear that the programme does not command universal support in the UK and therefore it is of considerable importance that any unfounded anxieties about health risks are properly addressed," the report says.

Acknowledging that there is still considerable uncertainty in this area of science, COMARE also recommends that research is continued into all possible causative mechanisms of leukaemia, both radiation and non-radiation-related.


The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is looking at ways of making further cuts in defence spending over the next financial year.

Despite plans announced in last year's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) to cut military spending by 8 per cent by 2015, the MoD is said to still be facing a budget shortfall of around £3 billion over the next three years.

According to the Daily Telegraph a three-month study, set to report in July, is taking place to establish whether previous spending plans are still affordable.  The study will aim to balance defence priorities with the budget available to the MoD, and close the gap between the MoD's planning assumptions and its spending settlement.  

Prime Minister David Cameron brokered a deal between the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury in early April which amounted to an £800m military bailout, preventing any further cuts from being made in the current financial year. However, the new study is needed to inform decisions for the next financial year, beginning in March 2012.  MoD insists that the move does not mean that the SDSR is being re-opened.

The government must decide whether to increase defence spending in 2014 following the current Comprehensive Spending Review period, or continue to make cuts as part of its drive to reduce the UK's budget deficit.


The Ministry of Defence has been accused of misleading MPs about the safety of nuclear powered submarine reactors following the inadvertent publication of restricted information about submarine safety.

A reassuring statement by Peter Luff, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, in response to a Parliamentary Question by Scottish Nationalist MP Angus Robertson is at odds with an analysis of submarine reactor safety presented in a restricted report prepared by the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR).

Information in the report, originally prepared as part of a paper to the Defence Board on design of the proposed 'Successor' submarine which is intended to replace the current Vanguard class Trident submarines, became public when a version which had not been properly redacted was posted on the Parliamentary website.  Unredacted copies of the full DNSR report are now available on a number of internet websites, including the NIS website.

The report reveals that the UK's submarines are “potentially vulnerable” to fatal accidents.  British submarines are twice as likely to suffer reactor coolant leaks as American submarines because of inferior reactor design and a lack of safety systems such as passive core cooling and arrangements for injecting coolant into the reactor pressure vessel head.  “UK submarines compare poorly” in this respect with the civil nuclear sector and the US Navy's nuclear submarines.

British submarines could also be at risk as a result of an uncontrolled dive from which they could not recover.  Current reactor designs are not reliable enough to cope with such a situation.  The report concludes that it would be “unacceptable” to use the Royal Navy's current reactor design in the Successor submarine design.

Peter Luff's response to Parliament glossed over these concerns, and although the Minister has said that his reply was “entirely accurate”, he has been accused by Angus Robertson of putting secrecy ahead of public safety and not answering a straight parliamentary question.

Mr Robertson has since asked Mr Luff whether the Royal Navy's nuclear submarine reactor programme will be included in the scope of the review currently being undertaken by the Health and Safety Executive into lessons for the UK nuclear industry following the Kagoshima nuclear accident.  In response, the Minister has stated: “The scope of the review is focused primarily on the civil nuclear sector. However, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator is working with HM Chief Inspector of Nuclear Installations on his report to assess whether there are any implications for the UK's nuclear submarine programme”.

Scottish CND have produced a detailed report on submarine safety and reactor design which gives a full analysis of the contents of the DNSR report.


West Berkshire Council's Eastern Area Planning Committee has approved a resubmitted planning application for a new conventional manufacturing rationalisation facility at AWE Burghfield.

Although planning permission was granted, the committee took the precaution of seeking clarification from the Health and Safety Executive's Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) on whether the planned development fell within the scope of the review of the UK nuclear industry that the government has ordered following the Fukushima accident in Japan.

In reply, ONR wrote: “We believe there is no reason to request you to withhold the extension pending the outcome of ONR's review of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station event in Japan.  This is as the proposed facility is both off the nuclear licensed part of the site and has no potential to impact the operations that take place on that part of the site”.

Planning permission for the facility was previously granted in August 2008 but was scheduled to expire later this year.


The Office for Nuclear Regulation has written to nuclear site licence holders to consult on amendments that the ONR is considering making to the conditions attached to nuclear site licences.

The changes to licence conditions are required to fully implement the obligations of the European Union's 2009 Nuclear Safety Directive, which requires member states to ensure that management systems giving due priority to nuclear safety are established and verified, and that nuclear operators maintain adequate financial and human resources to fulfil their nuclear safety obligations.  Minor amendments are being proposed to licence conditions 17 and 36 to bring them into line with the requirements of the Directive.

The consultation closes on 30 June 2011.

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