HL Deb 13 July 1989 vol 510 cc420-2

3.17 p.m.

Lord Hatch of Lusby asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are conducting any research into the correlation between the incidence of leukaemia and other cancers with the operation of nuclear installations.

Lord Henley

My Lords, following a recommendation in Sir Douglas Black's report on cancer in West Cumbria, the independent Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) was established in 1985 to advise the Government. It has produced three reports concerning the incidence of childhood leukaemia and other cancers in the vicinity of certain nuclear establishments, and has made a number of recommendations which the Government have accepted. The Government are funding research to implement the recommendations of the Black and COMARE Reports and are supporting other related studies.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I welcome the reply given by the noble Lord which is apparently contrary to that given by his noble friend during proceedings on the Electricity Bill when I raised the same question and was told that there was no connection between leukaemia and nuclear installations. I am delighted to know that the noble Lord and, I hope, the noble Baroness have read the COMARE Report. Will the noble Lord confirm that the Government have accepted the following quotation from the report: The findings set out in this report, taken with those in previous reports, indicate that there is a statistically significant increase in the incidence of childhood leukaemia in the vicinities of Sellafield, Dounreay, and Aldermaston and Burghfield"?

Lord Henley

My Lords, we accept that there is evidence of association of the incidence of leukaemia in the vicinity of those nuclear installations, but we do not accept that that is evidence of a causal mechanism. Until we know what the mechanism is, it is not clear what action is indicated.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that we are trespassing on a delicate, demographic matter? The sampling procedures to diagnose a leukaemia cluster are delicate statistical matters. Will he also confirm that there are many leukaemia clusters that are in no way connected with nuclear power stations and that in granite areas such as Cornwall where the natural background radiation is vey high, there is apparently no incidence of leukaemia clusters?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord says. There are many clusters of leukaemia which are found not near power stations. There are very many complex issues to be addressed in estimating the possible health risks of low doses of radiation. The interpretation of data, in relation to what the noble Lord said was a very small number of people, presents many problems. As with any relatively rare disease, the incidence of leukaemia naturally varies widely from one area to another.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that whatever is proved about the disease, there is very genuine concern felt by the people who are suffering and their families? I warmly welcome the announcement made about the new research that is being sponsored. Can the noble Lord say a little more about it?

Lord Henley

My Lords, of course I accept the noble Lord's concern. I live in Cumbria, though admittedly quite a long way from Sellafield, and I know that many people are worried. I am sure that noble Lords will accept and acknowledge that this is an area which calls for scrupulous and expert investigation of the issues involved, and inevitably that will take time.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, while carrying out this very necessary research, will the Government also undertake research into the known fact that there has been a cluster of leukaemia cases far in excess of the statistical average in the region of Seascale for something like 200 years? In other words, whatever nasty things Sellafield may or may not be doing, something else is doing something quite nasty as well and those of us who live in that area, as I do, would quite like to know what it is.

Lord Henley

My Lords, this is indeed something that Sir Douglas Black considered in his report and I believe it was in the first report of COMARE, which related to West Cumbria.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that it is a fact that Sellafield is very visible from the top of Scafell and Scafell Pike? They are composed almost entirely of granite and give rise to streams which run past the installation.

Lord Henley

My Lords, what my noble and learned friend has to say about the geography of the area is of course quite correct.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, since we all have to die of something does it much matter of what?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am afraid it does. In the case of childhood leukaemia, it seems rather unfair that children should expect to die young. Possibly when we get a little older it may not matter.

Lord Stoddard of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in the areas of Burghfield and Aldermaston there is a continuing concern about the report and about these leukaemia clusters. Is he further aware that Berkshire is built not on granite but on chalk? Those of us who live in that area hope that there will be further research and perhaps further information can be made available in due course.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord knows that the third report of COMARE which came out this year, reported on the incidence of childhood cancer in the West Berkshire and North Hampshire area.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I am glad to hear that the noble Lord recognises that there is widespread public concern in this respect, particularly in relation to the vulnerability of children. During the passage of the Electricity Bill through this House I asked the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, whether the health costs were taken into account by the Government when considering the cost of building new nuclear reactors. Can I take it that the noble Lord's answer to me this afternoon indicates that the Government are now taking into account the cost of the research that is needed into this whole matter when calculating the cost of nuclear reactors?

Lord Henley

No, my Lords. I said that there is evidence of association but not evidence of a causal mechanism in connecting the clusters of leukaemia with nuclear power stations.