This is the Fourth Installment of our series: The Springfields Archive.
This was published in the Lancashire Evening Post in 2001. What the Post doesn’t mention is that Joe McMaster was a chemist at the Springfields Nuclear Fuel Manufacturing plant.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the McMaster family and BNFL. It is, without doubt, one of the saddest cases that I have dealt with as a Member of Parliament. I have known Stella and Joe McMaster for many years. We have tried all avenues to get the issue affecting them properly recognised by BNFL. Joe and Stella live in Fulwood, Preston, in my constituency. I have had several meetings with BNFL at Springfields, and although we are offered tea and sympathy in relation to the case, the matter is always left in the air. The company denies even the slightest responsibility for the plight of the McMaster family. Today, the case of the McMaster family will receive its proper airing, and I look to the Minister to see that they receive justice.
Joe McMaster joined the Atomic Energy Authority in 1951, aged 29. He had a thorough medical and was passed fit to join the company. Joe was a chemist and handled many chemical substances, which he examined to ensure that they were properly enriched. These were turned into fuel before being transported to Windscale. Joe was one of the team leaders responsible for sampling.
The rules that employees follow today would not be the same rules that were followed then. Joe tells me that surveillance of work practices was almost non-existent at the time. In May 1953, Joe was working at the plant when he received an ingestion of uranium. He believed that one of the valves was incorrectly fitted, or that there was just a faulty valve. He had a daily urine test, which showed him to have 18 times the level of radiation that he was normally showing. That excessive amount of radiation showed up for several months. He logged the accident–that he had received a blow-back of UF6–in the incident log book. During Stella’s discussions with BNFL, it was not until yesterday conceded that an incident occurred in 1953. When Joe went to see a geneticist, Mr. Gareth Evans, a few years ago, the geneticist asked for Joe’s medical notes from BNFL. Notes relating to 1953 were missing. However, Stella has managed to procure the 1953 notes, and would be prepared to make those notes available to an inquiry.
I shall tell this Chamber about the McMaster family and the tragedies following the incident, and perhaps another incident at Windscale. Stella and Joe had their first daughter, Lynne, in October 1950. Stella had a miscarriage in 1954. In February 1955, another daughter, Jill, was born. She suffers from an immune deficiency. Hon. Members will remember that Joe had perfect health when he joined the company and had a full medical in 1951. In August 1955, all his teeth were removed. His teeth were so loose that the dentist said that he could have removed them without pliers. He could have twisted them from Joe’s gums using his fingers. There was obviously something seriously wrong; Joe was only 34 and all his teeth had to be removed.
We now come to what I would call the twist in the tail. Joe, Stella and the family were on holiday in Cumbria at the time of the fire at the Windscale plant, when 376,000 curies were discharged from 40 isotopes during a three-day period. In a letter on 13 January 2001 to Mr.
Shuttleworth, the company secretary and group legal director, Stella reminded him that milk and vegetables were contaminated. The local newspaper, the Lancashire Evening Post, on 14 October 1957, carried the headline”Atom dust makes farmers worried” and the sub-line
“but expert says: ‘no need'”. The article states:
“Very worried farmers in the district around the Windscale plutonium factory were today besieging their NFU officials with inquiries about new aspects of the atomic threat which caused a ban yesterday on sales of milk from 100 farms following the overheated reactor alarm last week. The restriction was imposed because the level of radio iodine in milk was 6x the permissible amount, following the escape of radio-active dust. But apart from the milk ban farmers are worried about their livestock.” There was no ban on livestock, and no ban on the sale of vegetables. The McMasters ate the local produce while on holiday and drank the milk before it was banned. Both girls, Lynne and Jill, played daily on the beach.
In 1958, Stella gave birth to twins. They were six weeks premature, and one died at three days. The other daughter is still alive. Stella tells me that her daughter is worried about her health but refuses to get a medical check-up because she is so worried about what might be discovered. She has three children of her own. I will not mention her name at the request of the family, because their privacy should be properly protected.In 1964, the eldest of the children, Lynne, started to have trouble with her kidneys, and developed kidney stones. She was only a teenager. She was anaemic and had to take iron tablets. In 1960, Joe had kidney stones, too, which were removed. Jill, who was born five years after Lynne, left school at 17. On 9 May 1973, when she was 18, she suddenly got a nosebleed. She was admitted to Royal Preston hospital for a week, before being transferred to Manchester. She was diagnosed with acute leukaemia, type unknown. On 23 May 1973, 14 days after her first nosebleed, Jill died.
In 1972, the eldest daughter, Lynne, married. Her first child was stillborn, in 1978. Lynne first complained about feeling constantly tired in 1986. Her doctor upped her iron tablets, but that did not work. In 1987, Lynne had tests that showed that she had acquired idiopathic sideroblastic anaemia, which is a disease associated with elderly people. She was admitted to hospital for months in an isolated ward. She needed a bone marrow transplant, and Joe was found to be a suitable donor. However, tests proved that Joe had a chromosome defect due to radiation. A donor was finally found in the United States, but unfortunately it was too late. Lynne died, aged 38, on 27 August 1988, with–as Stella describes–a lovely face but the body organs of a very old person. She was blind, deaf and paralysed before her death. The doctors could not work out how she had contracted the illness. They even asked her whether she had worked with any radiation materials. When they found out what her father did for a living, they simply nodded.
Stella started to get thyroid trouble and is on thyrodoxine and both she and Joe now have cataracts. Joe retired from BNFL in 1982. He had a whole body count that showed that he had 300 bequerels, when it should have been only five.
In 1987-8, Professor Sir Richard Doll stated that leukaemia clusters were caused by radiation. Sir Richard then became a consultant for BNFL at the Hope and Reay cases at the High Court in 1993. By that time, Sir Richard had changed his story. The judge, Mr. Justice French, found in favour of BNFL on the balance of probabilities; there was insufficient evidence to prove the case. That judgment came on 8 October 1993. The case cost almost £10 million. Had the case been successful, 40 other families were expected to bring similar cases. The centre of their claim was a report in 1990 by distinguished epidemiologist Professor Martin Gardner of Southampton university, who has since died. He examined a cluster of leukaemias in the village of Seascale, 2 miles from the plant. He found that a higher than average incidence of fathers who had received high doses of radiation had cases of leukaemia.
The judge ruled that scientific study into only five cases was unsupported by other studies. The first of the two test cases was brought by Elizabeth Reay, whose 10-month-old baby died of leukaemia in 1962. The father, George Reay, had died of cancer in the mid-1980s. He had suffered one of the largest radiation doses of any Sellafield worker. The other case was brought by Vivian Hope, aged 28, who had received chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, another blood cancer, diagnosed in 1988. That had left her disabled and sterile. Her father, David, was a fitter at the plant for more than 20 years.
“The number of childhood leukaemia cases around Sellafield remains ten times higher than the national average. BNFL has yet to prove that these facts are not connected.” Research into the atomic bombs in Japan showed that there was no link between radiation and childhood leukaemias, but some excellent research by the respected Professor Alice Stewart demonstrates that radiation in small amounts over a longer time has a different impact on individuals. The Japanese research is not relevant in this case. BNFL has always been willing to meet me whenever I have asked, but it is obvious that it was keen to end correspondence with the McMasters as soon as it could. The McMasters have asked questions but received few answers. The facts of their tragedy are there for everyone to see. The company states that the McMasters have been unlucky and that it was just a tragic coincidence that they had lost all but one of their children; and, of course, that other tragedies had befallen them. They certainly have been unlucky, but they deserve answers. I am well aware that the case has important repercussions for many other families. That does not mean that we should not get answers to those questions; we must try to do so.In a letter to me on 1 March last year, the then Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe,
now the Secretary of State for Scotland, wrote to me to say that she was saddened to read the tragic details of Mr. McMaster’s family. I understand that BNFL has rigorously examined his long-standing claim that BNFL operations and Mr. MacMaster’s employment at BNFL’s Springfields site have in some way caused the sad loss of his daughters. BNFL’s firm view is that there is no medical or scientific evidence to support this claim. What the Minister said was confirmed by BNFL. There are no surprises there; I would not expect BNFL to say anything else.The Minister then referred to a Department of Health study into cancer or genetic defects resulting from low-level radiation exposure. The Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment is carrying out this study, and it was due to publish a report last year, but that has now been delayed until next year. Those findings may well give some support to the McMaster theory that his exposure–either through the digestion or through playing near Windscale at the time of the fire–had something to do with the deaths and other tragedies surrounding his children and his own illness.
“As I said at the end of the meeting, I do not think that further meetings would be profitable as agreement is extremely unlikely and it is obviously upsetting and distressing for Mr. and Mrs. McMaster to go through their extremely sad family history.” In a letter of 25 February 2000, Mr. Shuttleworth stated that the McMasters always had the opportunity to bring legal action against the company; but how much would that cost, and who would pay? This is a normal family, they simply could not carry the costs of a case such as that against a company such as BNFL. It is a David and Goliath scenario that they could not contemplate. I ask the Minister for a full and independent inquiry into the McMaster case. The inquiry must look at all the evidence; it must be independent. It is pointless having BNFL look over the case and it is pointless having reassurances from BNFL. The inquiry must be independent and undertaken by someone who has access to all the facts; there must be no cover-up or delay.The McMasters are getting on; Stella always jokes with me that BNFL are waiting until she dies, but she refuses to die until she gets the case sorted out. She is a sturdy lady, and she is determined to get answers to the questions that she has posed. The family have suffered long enough, and for BNFL to say that they should not have to endure the stress of going through their story time and time again is really pointless. They have lived this tragedy; when Stella tells the story today, she will still cry, because she feels it as though it happened yesterday. The family have suffered long enough; they still feel guilty, I suspect, that they have played some role in the death of their children. They should not be allowed to carry that burden one day longer.
I know that the courts did not find that the case was proven, but an independent inquiry would get to the bottom of the problem and answer the questions that have dogged and plagued the McMaster family for many years. They will be listening as carefully as I am to what the Minister has to say. Will he please give them some hope?
The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Mr. Peter Hain) : I begin by paying tribute to the energetic manner in which the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) has supported Joe and Stella McMaster, who have suffered such terrible tragedies. As a father of two, I find it difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend such devastating events and so will many other parents. My heartfelt sympathies go out to the McMasters and to their surviving daughter and grandchildren.
I well understand why the McMasters have been intensely anxious to identify a common cause linking two of the three deaths from apparently similar illnesses. I also understand why they have sought to attribute the deaths to radiation effects, given that it has been established in research on Japanese atomic bomb survivors that those exposed to high levels of radiation have an increased risk of developing cancer. I understand also why Mr. and Mrs. McMaster should have sought compensation initially in 1990, at a time when the possible link between childhood cancer and nuclear industry operations at Sellafield had been put into sharp focus by publication earlier that year of the report of Professor Martin Gardner and his colleagues.
Professor Gardner’s study had found a statistical association between the dose of radiation received occupationally by men before conception of their children and the level of leukaemia in these children. This association was both new and controversial.
Substantial further research followed to clarify the association and in particular to establish whether the evidence supported a causal link with the Seascale childhood leukaemia cluster. A review written by the distinguished epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll and his colleagues in 1994 concluded that
“the hypothesis that irradiation of the testes causes any detectable risk of leukaemia in subsequent offspring cannot be sustained.” The Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment, the Government’s independent expert advisory committee–with members chosen for their medical and scientific expertise–concluded in its fourth report, published in 1996, that
“we have not found any epidemiological study elsewhere to support Gardner’s findings in Seascale in relation to preconception irradiation effects.” The Committee considered that PPI–paternal preconceptional irradiation–
“cannot account for the Seascale childhood leukaemia excess.”
Following publication of the Gardner report in 1990, the Department of Health and the Health and Safety Executive jointly sponsored two large-scale studies to investigate Professor Gardner’s findings. These studies, the record linkage study and the nuclear industry family study, were published in 1997 and 1999 respectively. The authors of the record linkage study–drawn from the Childhood Cancer Research Group, the National Radiological Protection Board, the university of Birmingham and the Cancer Research Campaign–concluded that”the results of this study of occupational exposure to radiation before conception of a child do not support the hypothesis that paternal preconception irradiation (PPI) is a cause of childhood leukaemia or non-Hodgkin lymphoma.” 7 Feb 2001 : Column 290WH The authors of the nuclear industry family study–drawn from the Leukaemia Research Fund, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund–concluded that”overall the incidence of all cancers and of leukaemia was similar” among children of nuclear industry workers
“to that expected in the general population”. These two large studies included the children of workers at Springfields, where Mr. McMaster was employed.
Two legal test cases to which the hon. Gentleman referred–Reay v. BNFL and Hope v. BNFL–were heard in the High Court during 1992-93, when extensive expert evidence concerning the statistical association found by Professor Gardner and its scientific interpretation was heard. In his judgment, the judge found that this expert evidence was “decisively” in favour of the defendant–BNFL–and the claims failed.Understandably, however, the McMasters have sought to prove that there is a link between Mr. McMaster’s exposure to uranium while working at Springfields and the deaths of their daughters. I understand that Mr. McMaster was employed at the Springfields uranium processing factory for 31 years between 1951 and 1982. One of his daughters, Lynne, was born before he joined the Springfields work force, but the others were born while he was employed there. I am told by BNFL that its records show that the cumulative radiation dose received by Mr. McMaster in the 31 years in which he worked at Springfields was not large, at under 50 mSv. For much of that time, the statutory maximum dose would have been 50 mSv or greater per year.
In 1990, Mr. and Mrs. McMaster initiated a legal claim for compensation, alleging that the death of their daughter Jill was caused by BNFL’s operations. Their claim was one of a number pursued at that time, following the publication of Professor Gardner’s report.
Jill was born after Mr. McMaster started work at Springfields. She died in her late teens of acute leukaemia. In the light of the independent scientific research that I have described, it appears most unlikely that her leukaemia was caused by Mr. McMaster’s exposure to radiation at Springfields; although, as a parent, I can understand why that might be supposed to be otherwise. Moreover, BNFL’s records show that the cumulative dose that Mr. McMaster received at Springfields before Jill was conceived was only 10 mSv over about three years. That can be compared with a current legal limit of 20 mSv per year, based on agreed international standards, although the limit at the time was higher.
Mr. McMaster’s first daughter, Lynne, suffered and died from the uncommon blood disease sideroblastic anaemia. She was conceived and born before Mr. McMaster started work at Springfields. I am advised that her disease cannot, therefore, have been caused by his exposure to radiation while working there.
Mr. Hain : I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument. The McMasters have suggested that the fire at one of the Windscale nuclear reactors at Sellafield in October 1957 may be a factor in Lynne’s death, and possibly also Jill’s. As the hon. Gentleman said, the McMasters used to stay in a caravan in Cumbria some 15 miles south of Sellafield. In the light of work done by the National Radiological Protection Board, I understand that even if they were there at the time, the doses to their red bone marrow–the relevant tissue for inducing leukaemia–would have been small.
The NRPB’s comprehensive dose assessments show that the red bone marrow doses received by children living in Seascale–which is adjacent to Sellafield–as a consequence of the fire were less than the doses received from natural background radiation during 1957. BNFL says that the doses due to the Windscale fire for children in Silecroft would have been even less, and in Preston very much less. Wherever Lynne and Jill may have been during and immediately after the Windscale fire, I am advised that the radiation doses to their red bone marrow received as a consequence of the fire appear unlikely to have been the cause of their diseases.
Twin girls were born in 1958, and Mrs. McMaster says that they were six weeks premature. One of the twins died of respiratory problems three days after birth. Unfortunately, such death in premature newborn twins was not unusual in the late 1950s. Mr. and Mrs. McMaster seem to have acknowledged in their meetings with BNFL that the death of the weaker twin due to respiratory problems would not have been unexpected at that time, especially as she was six weeks premature.
I understand that Mrs. McMaster suffered a miscarriage before the birth of Jill. The nuclear industry family study has produced no evidence that a father’s exposure to radiation before conception increases the risk of miscarriage in his partner’s pregnancy. In any case, the dose that Mr. McMaster would have received at Springfields before conception of the miscarried foetus would have been even lower than that received before the conception of Jill.
Mr. McMaster had lost all his teeth by 1955. I understand that all the evidence linking the loss of his teeth to radiation exposure relates to high doses received to the oral cavity during radiotherapy. That evidence provides no support for an argument that low doses of radiation received by Mr. McMaster during his work at Springfields could have caused the loss of his teeth. Tooth loss was common in the 1950s and was usually due to gum disease.
Mr. McMaster told BNFL that he was involved in an incident in 1953 that led to his being exposed to uranium. BNFL says that its comprehensive investigation of his dose records confirm that he was likely to have been exposed to uranium at that time, but adds that comprehensive monitoring for uranium-in-urine showed that his exposure was relatively low and not unusual for that period.
Mr. McMaster has also referred to an apparently unusual whole-body monitoring result just before he retired in 1982. These tests were regularly carried out by BNFL, which states that it comprehensively investigated the results for Mr. McMaster in 1982. Its
investigation found that the result referred to by Mr. McMaster was not particularly unusual and that other whole-body monitoring tests taken at that time were quite normal. Whole-body monitoring and uranium-in-urine measurements carried out in 1997 found no evidence for the presence of abnormal levels of uranium in Mr. McMaster. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley received a full explanation from BNFL in a letter dated 16 September 1998.Mr. McMaster also feels that a blood test carried out in 1990 shows that he has abnormal chromosomes. Tests carried out in BNFL’s cytogenetics laboratory at Sellafield revealed some unstable chromosome abnormalities that BNFL’s genetics expert at the time, Dr. Tawn, concluded were unlikely to be due to Mr. McMaster’s employment at Springfields prior to 1982, and even less likely to be linked to his exposures in the 1950s. The level of chromosome abnormalities found were not unusual in a man of Mr. McMaster’s age–he was 68 years old at the time–and raised levels can be due to exposure to chemicals, medication or cigarette smoke, in addition to ionising radiation.
Repeat blood tests were carried out by Westlakes research institute and the National Radiological Protection Board in 1997. As in the earlier 1990 analysis, the level of unstable chromosome abnormalities was not particularly unusual. Analyses were also conducted for stable chromosome abnormalities, which are more relevant to radiation exposures dating from many years ago. The frequency of stable chromosome abnormalities was slightly raised, but not unusually so, given that Mr. McMaster was 75 years of age when his blood was sampled. Also, those slightly raised levels may reflect exposure to other material such as tobacco smoke; I am told that Mr. McMaster was a smoker.
All these issues have been covered in an extensive correspondence between BNFL and the McMasters since 1993, when the possibility of successful legal action became remote. There have also been a number of meetings between BNFL and the McMasters since 1994 to explore these matters and to try to allay their concerns about their surviving daughter and grandchildren. To this end, BNFL arranged a consultation with Dr. Gareth Evans, consultant clinical geneticist at St. Mary’s hospital, Manchester. Similarly, blood tests and radiation monitoring were also arranged by BNFL. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley has seen the greater part, if not all, of the correspondence between BNFL and the McMasters. He has also twice accompanied the McMasters to meetings with BNFL. He is therefore aware of BNFL’s reasons for not accepting responsibility for the McMasters’ tragic losses.
A recent study, published in a scientific journal last year, found that in terms of mortality as a whole, and cancer in particular, the Springfields work force has rates that are below those of the general population. BNFL has given detailed and comprehensive explanations to the McMasters, and to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley, of why it believes that there is no reasonable scientific basis for considering BNFL to be responsible for these tragedies. BNFL strongly and honestly believes, in the light of the evidence that has been so painstakingly examined, that it cannot reasonably be expected to compensate the McMasters. BNFL has offered the hon. Gentleman full access to its
files, and I hope that he will take up that offer in order that he may be satisfied that his constituents’ concerns have been scrupulously examined.BNFL has also offered to arrange for independent expert examination of its dosimetry records, which is a helpful suggestion. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it should be pursued. I add my condolences to Mr. and Mrs McMaster on this deeply distressing case. I know that they will be disappointed with my response, but I have seen no evidence to contradict that which I have cited and which the courts have supported. There is no basis for an independent inquiry, but I shall be happy to receive any further evidence or representations from the hon. Gentleman, directly or indirectly, if he believes it to be appropriate.