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Ronnie Sookhedeo

Workers Lives in Danger

(August 1978)

From Militant, No. 420, 25 August 1978, p. 3.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The news last week that a total of 21 workers at the top secret atomic weapons research establishment have abnormally high amounts of plutonium dust in their lungs has catapulted the controversial issues of the toxicity of plutonium and radiation levels into national prominence.

Apart from providing a glimpse of the activities of the scientists, the news also shatters the myth that plutonium emission is tightly controlled, and constitutes no danger to workers.

“Relatively large amounts of plutonium can be eaten without appreciable harm,” was the claim made by none other than Justice Parker in his report on the Windscale Inquiry. This is now being used by the Ministry of Defence in an attempt to ally mounting public fears with the revelations that nuclear workers contract cancer at unusually high rates.

When told that he had been exposed to three and a half times the “safe level of radiation”, a 59-year-old process worker at the research establishment crystallised the feelings of all the workers. “It was a terrible shock,” he said, “but what of the future?”

Indeed, what of the future? Many thousands of workers are being exposed daily to the current safety levels of 5 rems (unit of radiation) a year. In the last year alone a mountain of evidence has been published linking extremely low dosages of radiation with the increase in cancer deaths.

Horrifying statistics have come from America. Studies of the death certificates and radiation exposure records of workers at the Hansford nuclear plant in Washington have revealed a disturbingly high incidence of cancer of the pancreas and leukaemia. All the workers were exposed to levels of radiation well within the agreed safety limits.

But the most alarming results have come from a chance discovery. The overall cancer death rate among civilian nuclear workers at the navy’s Portsmouth Shipyard in Kittery Maime was more than twice the national average and well above that of the yard’s non-nuclear workers.

These figures were calculated by a doctor, who asked the navy for the workers’ records. They flatly refused. He filed a law suit under the Freedom of Information Act, and they promptly reversed their position and released the records.

The navy had good reason for maintaining an iron hold over these records. The results were startling. The Portsmouth study showed that the rate of leukaemia was an incredible 450% higher than the general population and the incidence of lymph gland cancer was 125% higher. And the workers were only exposed to an astonishingly low 1 rem of radiation per year.

These studies have conclusively demonstrated that there is no safe level of radiation exposure. Cancer can develop in a long agonising process. So the full extent of radiation damage caused by plutonium is unlikely to be known until too late.

The only way to avoid this is for the labour and trade union movement to initiate a campaign for the complete medical examination of all radiation workers and for comprehensive dossiers, maintained and made public.

Moreover, in the same way as the trade unions fought to bring down the safety level from an incredible 73 rems a year in 1931 to the current 5 rems, we must now call for the complete abolition of “safety levels”, and the recognition that all levels cause cancer.

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Last updated: 7 November 2016