Ellie de Cordova lived at Whitehaven, nine miles away from the nuclear reprocessing plant of Sellafield. At the age of four, she died of leukaemia, a type of cancer affecting the blood and bone marrow. Eighteen other children within 20 miles of Sellafield have also developed leukaemia. Now their parents are united to sue British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. They explain why in our special feature.

Nineteen children living with 20 miles of the Sellafield nuclear plant have developed leukaemia, a cancer affecting their blood and bone marrow. In a few weeks’ time their parents will begin proceedings to sue British Nuclear Fuels for compensation. If they win, it will make legal history. Four of these families have told their story exclusively to the Observer. Report by Alison Whyte and Annabel Ferriman. Photographs by Christopher Pillitz.

Lyn Marr knew something was seriously wrong with her five-year-old son Ronald when the hospital specialist and her GP came to visit her at home. Ronald had been to the hospital for tests because of pains in his legs and a terrible lethargy that would not go away.

“We knew something was the matter. Usually you go to see the doctor, the doctor doesn’t come to see you. It was such a shock. Cancer goes right through you. You hear of a thing, but if it doesn’t concern you, you put it to the back of your mind. But when it is happening to you and our child, it hits you right in the face.”

At first Mrs Marr was convinced that she had given her child the disease, which turned out to be acute lymphatic leukaemia because she was a smoker. “But I asked the doctors and they said it had nothing to do with it.”

Then, last July, three months after Ronald had been diagnosed, a friend saw an advert in the local newspaper, the Whitehaven News. It said: “If your child suffered or is suffering from leukaemia, if you live in the surrounding area of Sellafield and if you are interested in making a claim against British Nuclear Fuels, why not telephone us?”

It started Lynne Marr thinking. The Marr family live in Workington, 15 miles up the coast from Sellafield, the huge nuclear reprocessing plant and reactor complex in west Cumbria, which has been the centre of controversy ever since it, was built in the early 1950’s. Her husband also called Ronald had worked at BNFL as a building contractor. “I started wondering what he might have brought home on his clothes.”

She also started to remember how Ronald had played on the beach as a toddler and how just nine months after he was born, in November 1983, Sellafield had suffered one of the worst leaks of radiation in its history. “It was in all the papers.” Says his father. “Other kids who played down there got burns on their skin.”

Lynn Marr phoned the number given in the advertisement. It belonged to Martyn Day, a London solicitor who had been representing 10 families of Sellafield workers seeking compensation. Martyn Day had been involved in radiation work for four years, ever since, as a specialist in accident and injury work, he had been invited by Labour MP Frank Cook to join the Radiation Victims Round Table, an organisation of lawyers, doctors and scientists, set up to advance the cause of radiation sufferers.

At that time in 1984, only two groups of victims had been identified: workers in the nuclear industry and those who had been exposed to radiation when Britain tested its first nuclear bomb. But scientists and doctors had begun worrying that people who simply lived near a nuclear reprocessing plant, such as Sellafield, could somehow be affected.

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Their fears had been raised by the findings of a Yorkshire Television documentary in 1983 called “Windscale: the Nuclear Laundry” which showed that the incidence of childhood leukaemia- a cancer which affects the white cells in the blood and bone marrow was 10 times higher around Windscale (later renamed Sellafield) than the national average. This ‘excess’ of leukaemia’s was confirmed in 1984 by the Black committee, although that committee did not know the cause and that it could be due to coincidence.

But when the report came from the government appointed Committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) was published last year, the situation changed. The committee concluded that “some feature’ of the plant contributed to an increased risk of leukaemia to young people living nearby.


The statement by the committee chairman Martin Bobrow, a paediatrician from Guy’s hospital that “the burden of proof had shifted – the leukaemia cases must be assumed to be connected with the nuclear plants until proven otherwise” was the strongest indication yet that there was a case to answer.


“When I read the COMARE report last June, I realised the whole ball game had changed” said Martyn Day. “That was when I decided to act.” He put a small advertisement in the Whitehaven News thinking he would be contacted by two or three families. In the event 22 families contacted him within a few days and another eight families since. Day visited all the families included the Marrs, within the space of a week. “Most of them were bemused and suspicious at first. They weren’t quite sure what was going on, but they keen to look into it. They did not want to put themselves through even more suffering. I explained the science, the legal procedure of making a claim, and why I thought there was a reasonable chance of winning the case. Quite a nuclear said they were glad the case would get a full public airing.”


From the start it was quite apparent that the battle was going to be of major proportions. If Day wins, it will make legal history. Although Sellafield workers have previously taken legal action against British Nuclear Fuels, no one who lives in the vicinity of the plant has done so. The company acknowledges that it has paid out £500,000 to widows and dependents of 17 workers in the past 30 years but it has never paid out anything to anyone just living nearby. BNFL has always refused to admit liability.


The first step for Day was to try to get legal aid for the victims but even this proved difficult because of objections by BNFL. He applied on behalf of his client last August, and was told by the Law Society in October that, in principle, there should be nothing to stop them getting aid. The Society just had to look into the financial circumstances of each client to see if they qualified.


Then, two months later, solicitors for BNFL wrote to the Law Society saying that the applicants didn’t have a case and therefore should not be granted legal aid. In February, Days clients were informed that their applications had been rejected. Day appealed against the decision and finally in March 18 out of the 30 families heard that they had been successful. (Of the others, some did not qualify for financial reasons, some dropped out and some are still waiting to hear.) The first hurdle had been surmounted.


The next step was deciding where to start. Day wants to begin with three or four children as test cases. A group of scientists are examining the details of each of the families to decide which is most suitable. One of these experts is Professor Edward Radford, who has advised the US government on the effects of radiation and who has studies its effects on Hiroshima survivors.


“We are considering three main factors – how close the families live to Sellafield, whether they live on the coast and whether a parent has worked at the plant.” Says Radford. “Although BNFL does careful monitoring of workers clothes, there have been documented cases of contaminated workers leaving the plant.”


Twenty of the families who contacted Martyn Day live within a 15-mile radius of Sellafield. The others live up to 50 miles away. A total of 22 of the 30 children, whose ages range from four to twenty are still alive. Most of the children have acute lymphatic leukaemia – acute myeloid leukaemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.


It is thought that there may be three “pathways” from the nuclear site to childhood leukaemia. First through discharges of radioactivity into the environment, affecting the population directly or ending up in food and drink. Secondly, through the irradiation of adults, whose genes are damaged leading to an increased tendency among their offspring to develop cancer. Thirdly direct exposure of children to radioactivity brought home by their parents on their bodies or clothes.


Although COMARE pointed the finger at Sellafield, it was unable to explain how the plant could have caused the leukaemias, because according to available estimates, levels from radioactivity from Sellafield were too low to cause the disease.


But COMARE’s work was given added weight by the findings of a study by the Medical Research Council and the Imperial Cancer Research Foundation in March this year, which discovered clusters of childhood leukaemia (that is abnormally high rates) around some 15 nuclear installations. It may be that either the official estimates of the emissions are too low, or that lower levels of radiation than was previously believed can cause leukaemia. But clusters of leukaemia cases pose a puzzle for scientists because they do also occur in areas unaffected by the nuclear industry.


Once it is decided which cases to start with, writs will be issued against BNFL, probably during this summer, and the due legal process will begin. Truckloads of evidence will be exchanged between the two sides and the cases are not expected to reach the Royal Courts of Justice inside two to three years.


Some of the families who work at Sellafield wish to avoid publicity. Others like the Marrs, the de Cordovas, the Beatties and the Colemans are willing to speak about why they are prepared to sue BNFL.


“I want to know if it is Sellafield that is causing these cases of leukaemia and if it is, I want it to be made safer so that other kiddies do not have to go through what mine is going through” says Lynn Marr. “It has taken away his childhood.”


Treatment started for Ronald the day after he was diagnosed. He was taken to the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle upon Tyne and was started on chemotherapy (drug treatment). He was in and out of hospital for months but now, a year later is home most of the time. Lynn Marr had to give up her job in a shop to look after her son (the Marrs have two other children, grown up daughters.) “Ronald is not the little lad I know” she says “Before he had leukaemia he was loving. Now he’s bitter. He’ll say “Its your fault and I hate you” This treatment has to go on for another year and then we won’t know for three to five years after that whether he is cured.”


Another family willing to speak out are the de Cordovas whose daughter Ellie died of leukaemia at the age of four, almost three years ago. They object to the secrecy which they believe surrounds the plant. They consider that BNFL runs the local borough like a company town.


“Sellafield affects every company here one way or another. They act as if they owned the place” says Phil de Cordova, a fitter with British Steel. “I think they are nitpicking with the statistics about leukaemia.”


Mr de Cordova’a views are echoed by many others who live in the area. The secrecy surrounding the plant meant that the serious nature of the fire there in 1957 – considered the worst nuclear accident in the world until Chernobyl – was not revealed until 26 years later, when the National Radiological Protection Board admitted that the radiation released then could have caused up to 33 deaths.


Between 1976 and 1982 and since 1987 the nuclear industry has been required to make public every incident that occurs. As a result, an alarming nuclear of incidents and leaks have been revealed. BNFL produced a list of 1777 incidents that took place between 1950 and 1976 for the Windscale Inquiry in 1977.


But Sellafield is the economic centre of west Cumbria, providing 14,000 jobs in an area with a working population of only 32,000. The company estimates that around 25,000 people in west Cumbria are economically dependent on it. So although it sucks in 1000 tonnes of spent reactor fuel each year and pumps out at least a million gallons of contaminated water every day into the Irish Sea, most families will not speak out against it.


It has even become, surprising, one of the country’s fastest growing tourist attractions, pulling in 150,000 tourists last year. Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE) provide a focus for the opposition but the organisation is still small.

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The dependency of the local community on Sellafield was one of the main problems that Martyn Day thought he would have to contend with. He feels that the climate is now changing. “My experience has been that the area surrounding Sellafield is like a company town, but the response to the advertisement shows that people are now more prepared to challenge BNFL than previously.” The other crucial factor in the case will be the judges ruling on whether to accept medical probability as the standard of proof. The cases will be brought under Section Seven of the Nuclear Installations Act 1965. This provides a liability on plants such as Sellafield to compensate any person who can show that they have suffered personal injury as a result of radioactive emissions. “We will be out to prove that, on the balance of probabilities, using all available statistical and epidemiological evidence, Sellafield is a cause or a partial cause of leukaemia in our clients.” Day says.


British Nuclear Fuels believes that Day does not have a hope of winning. Jake Kelly, Media Relations Manager at BNFL points out that the COMARE report was unable to explain how the plant could have caused the leukaemia. “We are quite convinced that if we go to court we will win this case, because if you can’t establish a cause, how can you lay blame? The radioactive emissions from this plant are no way high enough to cause leukaemia.”


Kelly can’t understand why BNFL is still seen as secretive. “There is no doubt that during the first 30 years of the industry there were some very complacent and arrogant scientists,” he says. “We have always been open, but we have never been seen to be open. I put it down to the fact that we are never able to separate in people’s minds the military and civil use of nuclear power. The public have got to make up their minds what they want. If Sellafield goes down, you might as well build a wall around west Cumbria and forget all about it.”


If Day’s clients do win, they stand to gain between £10,000 and £250,000 each. It’s not the money that motivates them, however according to Day: It is BNFL’s refusal to acknowledge openly even the possibility of a link between Sellafield and childhood leukaemias. “For my clients the money is not really relevant. It’s the principle that counts. If there was a degree of recognition from British Nuclear Fuels that they may be causing these problems I don’t think they would be facing this court case today.”


Ellie de Cordova age 4

“The gap she has left doesn’t get filled”


Phil and Chris de Cordova came to west Cumbria five years ago, first to Egremont, four miles from Sellafield and then to Whitehaven, nine miles north on the coast. Phil was unemployed but now works as a fitter for British Steel. Chris is a teacher at a local junior school. Their daughter Ellie who suffered from acute lymphatic leukaemia, died in 1986 at the age of four. The de Cordovas have two other children, Olivia, 19 months and Ralph, 6 months. They have applied for legal aid and are awaiting the result. “Ellie was a fit and healthy child when she came to Whitehaven” says Chris. “About two months later she had a viral illness and just didn’t seem to pick up. As she crept towards her third birthday she was getting more lethargic and pale. We took her to the doctor and she was diagnosed on her birthday. It was “Happy Birthday Ellie, Today you are three and today you have leukaemia.” We were in a state of shock for a couple of weeks. But the doctor said they were making great strides every day towards a breakthrough so we never really had any doom and gloom about it.


“Two years later Ellie died a week before her fifth birthday. A child of that age doesn’t have any fear of death. She had known other children who had leukaemia, another child at my junior school has it and Ellie had a friend, Robert who died from leukaemia just a year before she did. We took her to his funeral. She likened it to a beetle being dead: “you stamp on a beetle and its finished.” She said. She knew that Robert was finished and his “thinking” was going to Jesus. She was quite happy with that. “The gap she has left doesn’t get filled. We like to include Ellie in our lives. Just because she is not there in person doesn’t mean that we want to exclude her.”


“I think that there must be a connection with Sellafield and some types of leukaemia: I don’t honestly see any other explanation for the clusters around Sellafield and Dounreay. I am not in principle opposed to nuclear power, but they should tighten up their controls because we are still hearing of leaks. Only last week there was another. But you daren’t say anything against Sellafield because people see it as a threat to their jobs.”


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Sarah Beattie age 7

“We could see her wasting away


Sarah Beattie is seven and has acute lymphatic leukaemia. At the time Sara was conceived her father was working at BNFL’s nuclear dump at Drigg, four miles south of Sellafield. During the pregnancy the Beatties lived in Whitehaven. Now the family have moved to Mealsgate, about 20 miles away. They have been offered legal aid.


Susan Beattie recalls: “Sara became ill in December 1086, when she was four. She was such a big fit girl – it was only us that could see her wasting away. She had pains everywhere and she didn’t eat anything. We took her to hospital and they thought she was depressed, so they put her in the psychiatric ward. Nine weeks later she was diagnosed. We were relieved because they had found something: for two months we’d been saying, “what are we going to do if she dies?” There followed a grim period of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and injections to the spine during which time Sarah twice lost her hair. “I cried one night and just got it all out of my system” John Beattie says. “We are not out of the woods yet,” says Susan. “Anything could happen. The longer you go clear, the more hope you have. You know that if she gets poorly again, it will be a lot worse. But she is great now.”


Susan Beattie was disturbed when she heard that BNFL had paid compensation to some families of Sellafield workers who had died from cancer. “If Sellafield can cause cancer in people who work there, what reason has BNFL got to say it isn’t affecting people around?” We are going ahead with this not only for ourselves, but for everybody else. Quite a few families are connected with Sellafield through work and they don’t want to plough in, in case they lose their jobs.” The Beatties bear no hostility towards Sellafield. But they are concerned that any connection between the plant and childhood leukaemias should be made known. “That’s what this court case is all about,” says John Beattie. “I would hate to think the plant was going to be closed down, but I it is causing leukaemia they have obviously got to do something. If it did shut down, though, it would cause an awful lot of hardship to this area.”


Richard Coleman age 16

“I remember the injections and my hair falling out”


The Colemans have lived in Maryport, 20 miles north of Sellafield all their lives. Their son Richard was diagnosed as suffering from acute lymphatic leukaemia when he was four. Now 16 Richard seems to have recovered fully: he has had no recurrence since he was six. Terry Coleman is secretary of the local branch of the Leukaemia Care Society. The family have been offered legal aid. “I don’t remember much about my treatment because I was so young,” says Richard. “But I do remember the injections and my hair falling out. It affected my schooling because I had a lot of time off. I’m now looking for a job, but they are very rare round here. I spend quite a bit of time visiting other children with leukaemia with my parents. I feel very sorry for them, but I know that seeing me gives confidence to the parents. They see that I have survived.” The Colemans home is 50 yards from the beach at Maryport. “I walked there when I was pregnant,” says Terry. “Richard was always playing there. Another parent I know who used to walk there also has a lad who has leukaemia. When Greenpeace took samples of radioactive silt to Downing Street, nobody would go near it. That’s what we have been living on top of.”


When Richard was ill with leukaemia, he also contracted bacterial meningitis. His father gave up his job with the water authority at tat time because of the risk of bringing bacteria home. “I was devastated but I had to, my main concern was the lad.” Says Thomas Coleman. “I’d like to go back 10 years before Sellafield opened and see how many cases of leukaemia there were then. Its all very well for BNFL to say they have cleaned the plant up now. I’m 100 percent behind them if they have. But its too late now, the leukaemia is there.”

2 thoughts on “Forgotten Archives: SELLAFIELD AND THE SUFFERING CHILDREN

  1. Pingback: Sellafield whodunnit? Answer: “mystery virus” - Scisco Media

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