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Ronnie Sookhdeo

Sellafield safety

Workers at risk

(February 1986)

From Militant, No. 787, 28 February 1986, p. 7.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE ALMOST weekly reports of radiation leaks and contamination of workers at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant have alarmed many ordinary families.

Recent medical reports have implicated the nuclear industry in abnormal incidence of cancers, especially leukaemia.

Now health and safety inspectors are to conduct an inquiry into Sellafield’s safety.

What is nuclear radiation and what are its effects? Radiation – in the form of ionising particles and rays – is emitted when a nuclear reaction occurs as in the production of nuclear energy. They are virtually impossible to contain.

A chief characteristic of some radiation is its ability to cause mutation of the cellular structure of the human body. When this occurs, cancers and leukaemia results. Small children and embryos carried by pregnant women and particularly vulnerable.

Recent research has revealed that whereas high levels of radiation often kill the cell, low levels are more dangerous as they injure the cell, leaving it free to reproduce and carry on the damage.

It is now well documented that levels within the agreed ‘safety limits’ have produced a disturbingly high incidence of cancers of the pancreas and leukaemia.

Case studies of American nuclear workers – using figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act – leaves the rate of leukaemia at an incredible 450 per cent higher than the general population. The incidence of lymph gland cancer was 125 per cent higher.

The same levels of cancers amongst nuclear workers and within the population in the vicinity of nuclear establishments have now been conclusively confirmed by four major studies.

A ‘mole’ has revealed that radioactive emissions are often reported to be a staggering 40 times less than they actually were.

In an attempt to stem these leaks the industry has issued warnings to its workforce, that they would be in breach of the Official Secrets Act if they disclosed any information even though it might be vital in terms of health and safety.

This ruling would be in breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1976.

The Act, hailed as a landmark in trade union legislation, established for the first time the legal right of trade unionists to investigate hazardous occurences and company policy in respect to health and safety. If successful, they could appeal to safety inspectors who could issue improvement and prohibition notices. Failure to comply could involve a maximum fine of £1,000.

Employers have consistently exploited every loophole in order to evade the duties placed on them. Ambiguous terms and definitions such as “reasonably practicable” which is defined in terms of cost of improving health, means in the final analysis that only the courts have the power to authoritatively interpret the phrases.

Finally, there is nothing in the regulation or codes of practice that commits the employer to divulge information however crucial. They do not need for instance to act upon reports submitted from safety reps and committees.

Labour inquiry

It is hardly surprising then, that there has been no successful prosecution of any company despite overwhelming proof of malpractice. The present situation in relation to compensation of nuclear victims demonstrates the ineffectiveness of this legislation. Workers have to prove through the courts that radiation has ‘significantly’ contributed to their cancers. Only a handful of cases have been successful.

It is now vitally important that the labour and trade union movement conducts its own inquiry into the nuclear industry. It must mobilise immediately to ensure that health and safety is a key issue in all nuclear establishments.

As part of this campaign it must insist on the full revelation of all company records and studies relating to the poisoning of workers and the community. They must recognise that there is no ‘safe level’ of radiation exposure.

They must demand stringent medical checks of all workers and the general population and the results must be made available.

A question mark now hangs over the nuclear industry – its appalling safety record together with the ever increasing threat of a major catastrophe, as occurred in Harrisburg in America.

Labour’s spokesman on the nuclear industry John Cunningham, is also MP for the constituency that includes Sellafield. Questions have been asked about his commitment to Labour’s nuclear policy. He has raised the prospect of high unemployment in the industry if other fuels are developed instead.

Clearly the jobs of every worker must be protected, but this can only be done with the implementation of a well formulated socialist energy policy.

This would provide the necessary resources to develop alternative sources of energy such as wind, solar and geothermal which do not produce harmful waste products and are present in infinite quantities.

Such a plan will give priority to the development of nuclear fusion which has the great advantage of producing no nuclear waste. It uses as a fuel a form of hydrogen found in unlimited quantities in sea water.

In the mean time the labour movement should oppose the madness of uncontrolled completely irresponsible expansion of nuclear power plants and reprocessing facilities.

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Last updated: 6 November 2016