Exclusive, 4 July 2011
The publication of a long-awaited and fiercely-disputed report on the radiation risks of nuclear power stations was accelerated but then delayed at the insistence of the government’s Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), internal emails reveal.
DECC initially insisted that the Department of Health (DoH) publish the report as soon as possible to help combat a court challenge on nuclear power. The government was being sued by an anti-nuclear activist for failing to take account of radiation risks.
The report was about the incidence of childhood leukaemias around nuclear power stations, and had been drawn up by the DoH’s Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE). It was prompted by German government studies that had found elevated levels of the disease around nuclear plants in Germany.
On 10 March 2011 Peter McDonald, from DECC’s Office for Nuclear Development emailed health officials urging publication. “It is in no one’s interest that the COMARE’s latest report becomes an issue in any court proceedings particularly as some have tried to characterise the perceived delay in publication as some form of government conspiracy because the findings are politically inconvenient,” he wrote.
“In the interests of transparency, the best possible thing is that the report is published as soon as possible and that, if anything, greater urgency is needed precisely because of the pending court action.”
But the day after his email, an earthquake and tsunami in Japan knocked out the Fukushima nuclear plants and their back-up safety systems, triggering the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl 25 years ago. As a result, DECC changed its tune.
In an email on 14 March, a DoH official said a submission to ministers to publish the report on 21 March had been withdrawn. “DECC have asked us to delay the publication of the COMARE report for a while given the current nuclear issues in Japan due to the earthquake,” wrote the official, whose name has been blacked out.
“We ask that DECC keep us informed as to the situation and when it might be appropriate to publish the report.” Ten days later, on 24 March, DECC changed its mind again.
“DECC have just rang and are now content for us to seek permission to publish," wrote a DoH official. But then the problem became intruding on the election campaign that had just begun in Scotland, offending the civil service tradition of not interfering with elections.
Scotland was described by one official as “the fly in the ointment” preventing publication. In the end, after seeking permission from the Prime Minister, David Cameron, the report was published on 6 May, the day after the Scottish election.
It was reported by some as “clearing” nuclear stations of blame for childhood leukaemias. But some radiation experts strongly disagree, pointing out that the figures in the report actually show a 22% increase in leukaemias and related diseases around nuclear reactors.
DoH released 79 pages of emails about the publication of the COMARE report in response to a request under freedom of information legislation.
The emails as they were released can be downloaded here (12.7MB pdf).