Nukes and Lib Dems: a response

Science is about testing assumptions; politics is generally about confirming them.

In his response to my column on the Liberal Democrats' policy on nuclear power, the party's environment spokesman, Simon Hughes, takes me to task for my "polemical" approach. I can only apologise if my writing style offends. I had supposed that putting things bluntly might be the best way to communicate with politicians who put populism ahead of good sense.

Hughes reiterates his assertion that nuclear power has detrimental effects on people's health. Unfortunately, the particular study he cites to justify this assertion supports my argument, not his. I will try to explain why below, using numbers where necessary and giving scientific references for other cited studies in the text.

Let's begin by looking in detail at the single German study Hughes bases his anti-nuclear argument on. Published in 2008 and generally referred to as the KiKK study, it appeared to show a relationship between a child's risk of contracting leukaemia and distance between the child's residence and the nearest nuclear power plant.

At first pass, this looks worrying, and campaigning groups quickly picked up on these results to trumpet a 120 per cent increase in childhood cancer rates (Hughes mentions "a doubling of the incidence of childhood leukaemia").

But let's look at the figures, rather than the propaganda. First, the numbers when expressed in percentage terms sound scary, but in absolute terms are rather small. (Yes, I realise that any child getting leukaemia is a terrible thing, but please let's refrain from emotive point-scoring.)

The study looked at children living within a five-kilometre radius of Germany's 16 nuclear installations over a 23-year period. It found 37 cases of leukaemia when statistically 17 would have been expected. That is about one extra case of leukaemia in the entire country each year -- hardly a major indictment of an entire industry, even if nuclear power were the cause of the increased incidence, which it almost certainly isn't.

Second, and more importantly, the study does not suggest any causal relationship between radiation emissions from the power plants and the increased cancers, a point that the authors explicitly acknowledge. Again, at first pass this seems odd. We know that exposure to environmental ionising radiation can cause leukaemia. We know that there seems to be an (admittedly tiny) increase in leukaemia around some nuclear power stations. It is safe to assume that nuclear power stations release some radiation. Case proven, right? Wrong.

Influence of a world-view

Here we go right to the heart of the matter. The assumption that living near a nuclear power station delivers a significant dose of radiation -- implicit in Hughes's response and most anti-nuclear discourse on the subject -- does not stand up to scrutiny.

As the German study itself points out, the annual natural radiation exposure is about 1.4 milliSieverts, and average exposure from medical procedures (X-rays and the like) is about 1.8 milliSieverts. A companion study gives precise figures for the additional doses of radiation for those living near German nuclear power plants: "cumulative exposure to atmospheric discharges" for a 50-year-old person in 1991 living five kilometres from one of the nuclear plants would range from 0.0000019 mSv at Obrigheim station to 0.00032 mSv at Gundremmingen station.

For anyone who is unhappy with numbers (including, I suspect, Simon Hughes), the original study makes very clear that additional "radiation exposure near German nuclear power plants is a factor of 1,000-100,000 less" than natural background levels. Given that these levels vary by more than a factor of ten between different regions for entirely natural reasons (such as differing geology), it is vanishingly unlikely that tiny amounts of additional radiation from nuclear power stations causes leukaemia among children.

So why, in that case, is there a statistical correlation, albeit a very minor one? There is no easy answer to this, another problem with basing one's world-view on science rather than prejudice. Looking at other studies may help, however.

As long ago as 1989 a paper published in the Lancet found that "excess mortality due to leukaemia and Hodgkin's disease in young people who lived near potential [nuclear] sites was similar to that in young people who lived near existing sites". In other words, cancer clusters appeared around sites at the planning stage, well before any radiation exposure might have occurred -- and persisted even if no nuclear facilities were ever built.

Studies have also found that cancer rates around nuclear facilities remained unchanged before and after start-up: in other words, where cancer "clusters" existed, they were already in evidence before any radiation was produced. Once again, this raises more questions than answers, but suggests that radiation exposure has nothing to do with it.

A further piece of evidence comes from the site of the world's worst nuclear accident, at Chernobyl. That children were exposed to major doses of radiation here is not in doubt: one study looking at childhood leukaemia in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine (published in the International Journal of Epidemiology) found that the median exposure to participants in the study was about 10 milliGray (the change in units is to do with biological doses received, but, for our purposes, Grays and Sieverts are roughly comparable) -- about ten times natural background levels. Even so, the authors concluded that their study "provides no convincing evidence of an increased risk of childhood leukaemia as a result of exposure to Chernobyl radiation".

Cause and effect

Why does this matter? Because if children near Chernobyl who were irradiated with doses 100,000 or more times that received by German children living near nuclear plants did not show statistically significant increases in leukaemia, then the conclusion is obvious: once again, it is incredibly unlikely that German nuclear power stations are causing leukaemia in kids. (I say "incredibly unlikely" advisedly: a relationship can never be ruled out with absolute certainty. Science is like that, Simon.)

So what explains the German leukaemia clusters? No one knows. One theory is that population mixing in rural areas, which already show higher-than-average rates of leukaemia, is somehow to blame. A possible infectious agent has been suggested as a transmission pathway for leukaemia; yet none has been identified.

Statistical accidents may also explain much of the mystery. Most of the leukaemia clusters involve tiny numbers of people (another cluster around the Krummel nuclear plant in Germany involved five individuals, while the much-discussed Sellafield cluster involved 12 cases over 40 years), making any statistically significant conclusions incredibly difficult.

Leukaemia clusters have been found in villages in Scotland and Germany which are miles from the nearest nuclear plant, and where no causative agent is suggested. Studies of nuclear sites in other countries, including Canada, France, Israel, Japan, Spain, Sweden and the US, have found no cancer clusters of any sort.

In the interests of brevity, I will skip the rest of Hughes's accusations -- even though I note that they sound a little, er, polemical to me. I only wish to note that, in identifying me as a Conservative supporter, Hughes must also be a convert to telepathy as well as mind control: I have never written anything suggesting that I will vote Conservative; indeed, I have not yet decided which way to turn on 6 May.

I'll leave this with one observation. Science is about testing assumptions; politics is generally about confirming them. I wish it were different, but Simon Hughes will need to demonstrate more open-mindedness in future if he is to provide evidence to the contrary.

 

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder