New Internationalist

Minority report

Issue 382

Do vested interests influence the science on the health effects of low-level radiation, a natural by-product of all nuclear power generation? Alice Cutler speaks to British scientific advisor Dr Ian Fairlie about the difficulties scientists face when dealing with the industry.

When did you first become concerned about nuclear power and health?
The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 was the main impetus for me to study radiation biology.

How have your political views affected your career?
My political beliefs have existed throughout my career, I guess. I’ve always tried to dig out critical scientific evidence and to use that knowledge to assist NGOs, local authorities, or people adversely affected by radiation. So I’ve been on the list of the ‘politically problematic’ for a while, I suppose. While working on temporary contracts in the civil service, I have been denied permanent positions on many occasions. This was particularly galling when I was clearly more qualified than the persons appointed – I used to receive phone calls from them asking for advice. Within the civil service, you are of course required to button your lip. I think they saw me as having the capacity to leak secrets, although I didn’t do so. So I was kept from access to critical information and given routine jobs. Being an independent consultant is more interesting because it allows you much more freedom of expression.

Have you experienced difficulties publishing your research findings?
I’ve often had critical articles turned down. I now tend to write on subject matters suggested by journal editors. With one or two notable exceptions, many research journals play very safe and publish more and more about less and less, in incredible detail. But publishing in these journals is essential to any scientist’s career. Without published work on your CV, there is neither kudos nor research funding.

What checks and balances exist on the scientific research used to reassure or warn the public, and therefore make science policy? For example, how are government scientific advisory committees appointed?
There isn’t much written about this. Every year millions of pounds of research contracts are awarded to many scientists but the public are uninvolved and unaware of where this public money is going. Research priorities are decided by government committees that most people are unaware of. I know little about them – only that they exist. The public has no influence on who is appointed to these committees. The government basically handpicks those scientists who have views similar to the government’s views. It’s a somewhat murky world of whom you know, who gets warned against and who gets recommended for funding.

How do pro-nuclear policies affect energy policy?
The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) spends around £300 million a year in keeping British Energy (the company running most of Britain’s nuclear power stations) afloat. Research and development grants are a huge subsidy to particular industries at the expense of others. If the DTI had invested in renewable energy half of what they have in nuclear research over the past 20 years then we could easily have achieved 20 per cent of our electricity needs from renewable sources.

Do you think there is pressure to suppress scientific evidence?
Yes, but the pressure often tends to be against certain people rather than against particular bits of scientific evidence. When I was a PhD researcher I was once heavily pressured by my university department to apologize to BNFL (British Nuclear Fuels Ltd) for a brief comment I’d made in a scientific journal. The problem was that the university department received a large amount of research funding from BNFL which had complained to the University. The pressure was considerable and I finally had to agree to write a letter. The Dean was suitably embarrassed when a week later I was awarded a prestigious fellowship to study at Princeton University in the United States!

In your opinion does the government acknowledge the risks of low-level radiation?
The problem is that the government is generally pro-nuclear, which inevitably means that research findings on greater radiation risks are soft-pedaled or ignored. Many institutions or individuals with real power (for example the Prime Minister, Cabinet Office, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ministry of Defence, various Government Departments, and the Chief Government Scientist) are strongly pro-nuclear, so they are keen to ensure that scientific advice is available which reassures the public that radiation is safe. Even where scientific findings critical about radiation do manage to get published (as in the recent CERRIE Report on the effects of internal radiation)1 the Government shelves them and ignores any uncomfortable implications. The military, nuclear and medical establishments are among the most powerful in Britain, and the question of radiation risks is a vital matter for all three. So it’s important for the government to make sure that radiation risks are ‘handled’ properly – in other words, minimized. This makes it important for critical scientists to make available scientific evidence indicating the contrary.

Alice Cutler is a British freelance journalist and popular-education consultant.
Dr Ian Fairlie is an independent scientific consultant for the World Health Organization, the European Parliament and a number of Government agencies. He currently serves as the Secretariat for the independent Committee Examining Radiation Risks from Internal Emitters (CERRIE).

  1. See: www.cerrie.org

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