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Legal challenge to proposed Heysham Reactor: studies link to doubled cancer rates

Chris Satori
Following on from German government studies showing more than doubled risks of infant leukaemia around every nuclear power station studied, Heysham Anti-Nuclear Alliance (HANA) has launched a legal challenge against Chris Huhne, the Secretary of State for The Department of Energy and Climate Change, for his Justification of new nuclear power stations.

A scientific report prepared for the court by Dr. Ian Fairlie, consultant on radioactivity in the environment describes numerous epidemiological studies into the increased incidences of cancer near nuclear power stations. A report commissioned by the German Government (KiKK) found significantly increased risk of various cancers, especially leukaemia (2.2) to infants and young children under five living within a 5km radius of each of the 16 German nuclear power stations.

Govt denies radiation the cause of UK cancer increase around reactors
Increased incidences of childhood leukaemias were first reported near UK nuclear facilities in the late 1980s. Various explanations were offered for these increases; however the UK Government Committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) concluded that the causes remained unknown but were unlikely to involve radiation exposures. This was mainly because the radiation exposures from these facilities were estimated to be too low to explain the increased leukaemias.

Official measurements outdated
Part of the problem seems to be in the way radiation exposure is officially measured in sieverts as a uniform average. This leads to under-estimation of the actual dose 'density'. If one ingests an alpha particle emitted from a uranium atom, the dose isn’t evenly spread throughout the body – its energy is entirely concentrated into a miniscule volume of tissue, with embryonic tissue being particularly sensitive. As Richard Bramhall of the Low Level Radiation Campaign explained recently in the Guardian, the standard way of measuring emissions is like ‘believing it makes no difference whether you sit by a fire to warm yourself or eat a hot coal’.

The German studies prompted an investigation by the UK Department of Health, the results of which were originally due to be published before the end of last year, but have been delayed, with no publication date in sight.

Huhne: Build now, worry later.
Huhne argued that the health impacts of new nuclear reactors could be looked at after construction had commenced. But this was rejected as illegal by law firm Irwin Mitchell.

Heysham Anti-Nuclear Alliance is a coalition of individuals and groups living in and around Heysham who are increasingly worried that successive governments show as little concern about regulating the nuclear industry as they did about regulating the banks. Rory Walker, the member nominated to represent the group in the legal action explained, “The Justification regulatory process is the key piece of UK law by which health detriments of nuclear power stations are evaluated. It is crucial to keeping communities safe.” The challenge aims to hold the Energy Secretary responsible for not meeting this legal obligation.

Euratom Directive
According to the Euratom Directive and UK Regulations, the Secretary of State must ensure that the health detriments from nuclear power stations are outweighed by their economic, social and other benefits before giving the go ahead to build new nuclear power stations.

“The fundamental purpose of the Euratom Directive is to make sure that a comprehensive and detailed assessment is made before new nuclear reactors are built,” said Andrew Lockley, a partner with Irwin Mitchell.

“It does not permit an approach which appears generalised, generic and deferred. Justification requires that the health detriments should be considered and balanced against the economic, social or other benefits which may occur - but this doesn’t seem to have happened here.”

The lawyers want a judicial review to rule that Huhne acted unlawfully, and to quash his decisions. This would force the minister to reassess the issue, they said, and could make him change his mind “in light of recent events in Japan”.

Legal proceedings were formally begun on 28 February. The announcement was postponed, however, to avoid accusations of opportunism in the immediate aftermath of Fukushima.

Heysham, which already has two nuclear reactors, is one of seven sites that the Government identified for future reactors, despite its being within 5k of the towns of Heysham and Morecambe and within 10k of the City of Lancaster.

'I want to start a family in safety'
Walker told us: “My concern is the effect of radiation emissions on myself and my community and the potentially long-lasting impact of radiation on people like myself wanting to start a family.”

Walker works on a project to help local people grow more food on a community allotment. Under legal aid rules, he has agreed to contribute £45 a month – 10% of his income – towards the cost of the legal action.

Donate for legal costs
HANA also needs to raise around £16,000 as a 'community contribution' towards the cost of bringing the legal challenge, and is asking for donations. If you would like to contribute, you can donate by Bank Transfer to:
Account name: Heysham Anti Nuclear Alliance
Account reference: 616 322 406
Account number: 10091267
Sort code: 16-12-27

Or email to arrange cheque or cash donations.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is the application opposed to nuclear power?
This application for Judicial Review is not about opposing nuclear power but about how the Secretary of State failed to carry out his legal duty to ‘justify’ the proposed new reactors by weighing the health detriments of radiation emissions and discharges from nuclear plants against economic and social benefits. The Government is required to do this under UK Regulations which in turn follow the Euratom Directive.

What would happen if HANA won?
The Court could either issue a Declaration or a quashing Order, or both. The Government would need to reconsider its Justification decisions.

Would the Government have to stop its nuclear plans?
For instance, would EdF have to stop its ground-clearing operations at Hinkley Point in Somerset?

The 2004 Regulations state that it is unlawful to introduce a new “practice” without it being justified in advance. Therefore if there were a judicial verdict against the Government’s Justification Decisions, then, legally speaking, it would be unlawful to continue to proceed. In particular, the Government would not be allowed to issue licenses under s. 36 of the Electricity Act 1999.

Parliament has already passed Regulations bringing the Justification Decisions into legal effect. Can the courts overturn a Parliamentary vote?
If the Justification Decisions were held to be flawed in law, then the Parliamentary votes based on them would also be flawed and therefore invalid.

Where will the hearing be held?
A procedural hearing will be held on May 12th in Leeds to decide whether the application will proceed to a full judicial hearing on its merits.