HL Deb 17 April 1991 vol 527 cc1478-80

2.53 p.m.

Lord Hatch of Lusby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking on the reports linking leukaemia with exposure to radiation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Henley)

My Lords, the Government are supporting a wide range of research to try to clarify the nature of the reported association between the operation of certain nuclear installations and childhood leukaemia. That work includes a major investigation of the health of the offspring of radiation workers and laboratory research on possible mechanisms. No causal mechanism associated with the incidence of leukaemia and the operation of nuclear installations has been identified.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, have the Government studied the three recent reports—the Gardner, Urquhart and Cartwright reports—and have they reached any conclusion on them as to whether any action should be taken? Is the noble Lord aware that in 1988 the National Radiological Protection Board recommended that the maximum worker dose of radiation per year should be reduced from 50 millesieverts to 15 millesieverts? Has any action been taken on the basis of that recommendation?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I think that I heard the noble Lord aright and that he mentioned the Gardner study. Following advice from the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment, the Government established a co-ordinating committee on the health aspects of radiation research under the joint stewardship of the Department of Health and the Health and Safety Executive. The co-ordinating committee on health aspects of radiation research will seek to ensure that public funds for research are properly targeted and that approaches to the families involved are minimised and duplication of resources avoided.

The noble Lord also asked about reductions in radiation limits for radiation workers. I can tell the noble Lord that lower radiation dose limits for service and Ministry of Defence civilian employees have been adopted as a prudent anticipation of the International Commission on Radiological Protection's new recommendations. However, it should be emphasised that they have not been introduced in response to reports on associations between leukaemia and exposure to radiation.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some people will feel that that is a rather complacent approach to some disturbing evidence, particularly from Professor Gardner's study? I understand that that was the first research to offer a plausible explanation of why clusters of leukaemia have been detected around Sellafield and other nuclear plants such as Dounreay, Aldermaston and Hinkley Point. If the conclusions are correct, there are safety implications for all those employed in the nuclear industry and their families. Is it not important that some decision should be taken which would give greater safety protection to those who now seem to be at risk?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I do not accept the noble Lord's allegations that the Government have been complacent. It would be wrong for the Government to jump to conclusions before any causal link, should there be one, was established. I can assure the noble Lord that through the Department of Health and the Scottish Office the Government are funding some 43 separate research projects into these matters. That shows the level of the Government's commitment in relation to these anxieties.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that this whole subject is haunted by the intrinsic difficulties of applying what is called small sample theory? Does he agree that if we apply the much more manageable large sample theory and take the largest sample we can find—the Japanese irradiated in 1945 at Nagasaki and Hiroshima—no connection whatever with leukaemia can be established?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I certainly accept the noble Earl's point. With leukaemia, which is a relatively rare disease, it is very difficult to produce any statistical analysis of value. If the noble Earl will cast his mind back two years when he asked a similar question, he will recall that I responded in very much the same way.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I realise that the Ministry of Defence has voluntarily reduced its maximum radiation limit to 30 millesieverts a year, but that is still twice the recommendation made three years ago. The noble Lord did not say whether any action has been taken on the basis of that recommendation.

Further to the reduction in maximum radiation limit by the Ministry of Defence, is it not the case that the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists is demanding a reduction to 10 millesieverts as opposed to the 30 millesieverts to which the Ministry of Defence, which after all is only one employer of nuclear workers, is voluntarily reducing its maximum at the moment?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I do not have the figures to show the level to which the Ministry of Defence has reduced its limit. As I said, this was adopted as a prudent anticipation of the new recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection. I should have added that other nuclear operators, such as BNFL, the Atomic Energy Authority and naval dockyard contractors, have also adopted in a similar manner company dose restrictions well below the current statutory limits.

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