October 23, 2017

Misleading the public

This article by Peter Bunyard and Edward Goldsmith has been condensed from the special issue of The Ecologist dedicated to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (Vol. 16, No. 4–5, 1986).

It was published in this form in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).

See ordering information for the Funbook.


Today, much of the information supplied by government and industry on key environmental issues is designed to rationalize current practices and policies. To that end, numerous public statements have been made which can only be described as downright lies.

Alice Coleman, for example, considers in her highly documented Second Land-Use Survey that land-use surveys provided by the civil service are designed, “consciously or unconsciously”, to conceal information rather than reveal it. Elsewhere she refers to the official land-use surveys as “smokescreens of disinformation”.

Likewise, the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) is shamelessly cooking the books in order to suggest that nuclear power stations are more economic than coal-fired ones. Even the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy has concluded that “the method used by the CEGB to justify past investments in Nuclear Power is highly misleading as a guide to past investment decisions’ and ‘entirely useless for appraising future ones”.

The National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) is also lying when it states that “no overriding reason connected with radiological protection has been identified which would preclude the disposal of suitably conditioned high-level waste on the ocean floor.” The NRPB knows that there is no commercially obtainable material that can contain high-level wastes for the tens of thousands of years or more during which they are potentially dangerous.

Certainly the stainless steel drums in which the wastes are normally encased are quite inadequate for the task at hand. The NRPB also knows that it is impossible to predict the movement of radionuclides on the ocean floor, especially if one considers that violent storms are known to occur in the ocean’s depths which could transport these poisons just about anywhere.

Besides, the Board’s reassurances are based on the assumption that radionuclides are diluted in sea water – ‘the myth of dilution’, as Paul Ehrlich refers to it. In reality, radionuclides tend to concentrate in specific organisms, organs and tissues. Thus ruthenium concentrates in seaweed, strontium in the bones of living things, plutonium in bones and testicles (which might partly explain the epidemic of testicular cancer among young men), while iodine 129 and 131 concentrates in the thyroid gland and so on. Such concentrations can be anything up to 300,000 times the levels in the surrounding environment.

Patrick Jenkin MP is also lying when he says that although the contamination of Cumbrian beaches (as the result of the accidental release of nuclear waste from Sellafield in 1983) was “very unsatisfactory”, there was “no evidence it could cause significant damage to anyone’s health”. He goes on to say that the worst anyone might suffer would be “localised irritation of the skin from prolonged contact with one of a number of pieces which have been found with much higher than usual levels of radioactivity”.

As Peter Bunyard describes in detail, even very small doses of radioactivity can cause cancer. Yet, in the case of Sellafield, we are dealing with the release of a massive amount of radioactive waste, more than enough to seriously affect the health of anyone exposed to it.

The government is also lying when it insists that plutonium from civil nuclear reactors had never been exported to the USA for military purposes. CEGB representatives told the same lie at the Sizewell inquiry. Lord Hinton, the first chairman of the CEGB to commission nuclear power stations for generating electricity, was shocked. “I am absolutely certain the CEGB statement is incorrect,” he stated; “I don’t know whether they should get permission for a pressurised water reactor (PWR) at Sizewell or not, but what is important is that they shouldn’t tell bloody lies in their evidence.”

In March 1986, Lord Marshall, Chairman of the CEGB, at last admitted that civil plutonium had indeed been diverted for military use. All too often, government scientists who actually take it upon themselves to tell the truth immediately get into trouble with the authorities, usually on the grounds that they have broken the Official Secrets Act.

Thus when Dr. Matthews, a soil scientist working for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, dared warn Cumbrian mothers in 1982 not to take their children onto the radioactive beaches in the area around Sellafield, he was immediately dismissed from his job.

Similarly, when Dr. Ross Hesketh revealed in 1983 that the British government, contrary to all its assurances, was exporting plutonium to the USA for military purposes, he suffered the same fate. Given such heavy-handed attempts to manipulate the flow of information to the public, it is hardly surprising that government announcements are treated with increasing scepticisim.

Nor is that scepticism restricted to environmental activists. An informal poll conducted some years ago revealed that no more than 12 percent of British Nuclear Fuels’ employees at Sellafield actually believed what their management was telling them regarding the safety of the plant they worked in.

How long will it be before the electorate, as a whole, reacts in a similar way to the pronouncements of its elected government?

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