Speaking Truth to Power?

Why it is so difficult to obtain any clear idea of the consequences to human health of disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, or indeed of any radioactive emissions from Sizewell?

Since 1959, the World Health Organisation (WHO, a United Nations agency) has been hampered in its work on the effects of radiation by a restrictive agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA is an autonomous organisation, not under direct control of the UN. Its primary purpose is to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, effectively blocking the release by the WHO of information that might tarnish that image.

Unlike most other international agencies, the IAEA talks mainly to the Security Council, and not with the UN Economic and Social Council. The journal Nature has reported that “the world must strengthen the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency to make independent assessments of nuclear safety” and that “the public would be better served by an IAEA more able to deliver frank and independent assessments of nuclear crises as they unfold”.

A few years ago it was established that a German nuclear reactor, similar to Sizewell B’s, released a puff of enhanced radioactive emissions each time it was shut down for refuelling. This significantly increased the likelihood of those emissions falling on fruit or vegetables subsequently eaten by people local to the station, just at the time when the shutdown occurred. Try as we might, we were unable to obtain, either from government or EDF Energy, any precise details of the emissions from SZB over its shutdown periods. Oh, there was plenty of information, about all sorts and conditions of interesting elements, but always with the emissions averaged out over long periods of time, such as a month or half a year.

If the risk comes from the moment a harmful particle is emitted, at the end of a day that risk has been divided by however many moments there are in a day; at the end of a month by another thirty odd times etc. The periodicity of the data we are given hides the risk to all intents and purposes – and those purposes are to promote nuclear power. Does it feel good to have the Security Council so concerned about the risk to us?