11 February 2006

Radiating confidence – or caution?

By Marguerite Finn

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it's the only thing that ever has."

(Margaret Mead 1901-1978)

I thought of Margaret Mead's words recently when I met a small group of dedicated volunteers monitoring the radiation emissions from Sizewell nuclear power stations. They are members of CURIE - Coastal Unit Recording Irradiation of the Environment - an independent, voluntary organisation carrying out gamma radiation measurements at selected sites around the two nuclear power stations: Sizewell A (two magnox reactors) and Sizewell B (pressurised water reactor) on the Suffolk coast.

What drives them out in all weathers to perform this thankless task? They want to know what the radiation levels really are, rather than relying on official reassurances. They know that CURIE. results are 'spin free'! Their measurements serve two purposes:
  1. To monitor any long term changes in radiation intensity, and to provide a base-line value in the event of a nuclear contamination incident;
  2. To alert local authorities in the event of any significant rise in radiation levels.
The paradoxes surrounding ionising radiation are bewildering. It is the gift bestowed by the sun upon earth at its creation, inexorably leading to the organic mutations, which are the keys upon which the tune of life has evolved in all its variations. Yet just a fraction too much of it – and a cancer thrives. Today, some advocate a new nuclear energy programme as the planet’s saving grace from the ravages of climate change, while others worry about the intergenerational inequity of bequeathing huge problems of nuclear waste to our descendents.

On 23rd January this year, the Government launched its Energy Review Consultation. Malcolm Wicks, the Energy Minister, is charged with undertaking an "extensive public and stakeholder consultation" over the next few months, leading to the formulation of a sound, sustainable energy policy. We welcome the Government's new-found transparency in throwing its current energy review open to public consultation. Barely 20 years ago, the Government of the day was not so honest. It chose not to tell the public – until long after it should have done - that a nuclear plume from Chernobyl was overhead and falling on our crops, our cows and our children.

Faced with this level of official irresponsibility, a small group of Suffolk residents formed CURIE around the nuclear reactors at Sizewell. Taking expert advice on the sort of scientific protocol needed, they decided they would in future monitor the ambient radiation, to ensure they knew as soon as possible if an undue release had occurred. It took them three years to raise the cash to buy a sufficiently sophisticated 6-80 monitor, robust enough to be passed from one to the other of them day by day and week by week, in their two circles of monitoring stations, one close to the feared source and the other curving from Southwold through Framlingham, Woodbridge and Sutton Heath.

The benefits were immediate. While trying out the monitor on Sizewell beach, they discovered that there was a sharp gradient of radiation dose from the water’s edge, reaching ten times the normal background levels at the station fence. They had been spotted though, and at that month's Local Liaison Committee Meeting, the station manager laconically mentioned (for the first time that anyone had heard) that there was indeed a "shine" from the station onto the beach – but said "you would have to stay by the fence all day to receive a dose equivalent to one chest x-ray" - which the committee happily accepted.

But CURIE was not deterred. Quite apart from it not being x-rays but gamma radiation, the members wondered how it affected the insects, rabbits, gorse and brambles that were there all the time.

For 17 of the 20 years since Chernobyl, CURIE has been keeping a check on Sizewell. It shares its Annual Report with local parish and town councils. These Reports are a valuable source of data on local radiation levels. CURIE's monitoring will become increasingly relevant to the local community during the de-commissioning of Sizewell A. The first phase, due to start after December 2006, involves dismantling radioactive structures with the potential for radioactive releases, if not done very carefully.

CURIE continues to be vigilant, but funding is always a problem. The monitor is professionally checked and recalibrated but it is undeniably getting old, like the reactors it watches, and CURIE members themselves, who wish they could stop, but dare not do so.

To help, contact: CURIE, 7 Moorfield Road, Woodbridge, IP12 4JN. E-mail: curie@onetel.com.