Suppression of the Truth
Part 2: Gary Lineker and Radioactive Poison
IT was the summer of 1990.
Like many, I was held bedazzled as the Italia 90 World Cup unfolded on our TV screens, and England found football glory with David Platt, Gary Lineker and the irrepressible Paul (Gaza) Gascoigne.
Earlier that year I had moved to be a reporter on a busy weekly newspaper in North Wales, leaving behind four care free years working for glossy computer magazines.
So, I sat on the warm evening of Wednesday, 4 July in a large pub near Conwy, with my new pals from the paper to watch a truly memorable game of football on a large TV screen.
The semi-final of the World Cup: England versus West Germany.
It was a game you couldn’t miss. It was a passion.
We were a happy bunch as we forgot about work and chatted about football and whether Gascoigne was the answer to England’s lack of a creative midfield.
We drank beer, cheered loudly as Lineker scored, shouted obscenities when Gaza was booked and cried into our beer after we lost the game on penalties to the Germans.
More beer was consumed until we wended our ways home.
The next day was press day at my newspaper in nearby Llandudno Junction – the day our weekly work went to press… a hectic morning, followed by feet up and a chance to recharge batteries in the afternoon.
Nursing a hangover (in more ways than one), the morning flew by in a blur, and after a sandwich and a coffee I sat at my desk and began to write a list of stories and tasks for the following week.
The office was empty as the phone on the neighbouring desk suddenly rang.
Out of routine I picked up the call.
“Weekly News, Nic Outterside, can I help you?” I asked.
A woman’s voice answered: “Are you a reporter?”
“Yes,” I replied, and began to listen.
Within a minute the lady on the phone had me listening like I had never listened before, and scribbling notes like there was no tomorrow.
She explained nervously that she was a nurse and the local hospital and her husband had worked for the past 20 years at Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power station, situated some 36 miles away on the outskirts of Snowdonia National Park.
The previous evening her husband had planned to come home early to watch the World Cup semi-final and enjoy a few beers.
Instead, she explained, he had arrived home crying and handed to her an official letter he had received from his employers Magnox Ltd, which informed him that, following internal testing, his body had received more than 20 times the safe clinical level of radiation during his years working at the plant.
He was to be transferred to another part of the plant for his own health.
At this point the lady on the phone began to cry uncontrollably.
“I don’t know much about radiation or my husband’s job, but I do know two of his friends there have recently been diagnosed with cancer, and my husband has been having stomach pains and had bleeding from his bowels,” she stuttered.
She explained that she was terrified, as the letter her husband had brought home was marked “Confidential” and he had been told he and his work colleagues were bound by the Official Secrets Act.
“I can’t even tell you my name or where we live” she added, “Or we could both end up in prison.”
I sat gobsmacked by what I had heard.
But I knew that as a journalist I could not do anything with this news unless I had proof.
I gently informed the lady of my dilemma and suggested we could maybe meet somewhere neutral so I could see the letter for myself.
After a moment’s hesitation she agreed, and gave me the location of a bus shelter on the Penrhyn Road, some three miles from my office.
A meeting time of 4pm was made. I explained I would park near the bus shelter in my black Fiat Uno car.
And so my first “Deep Throat” liaison was arranged.
But as I put down the phone, something worried me… if this news and indeed the letter were bound by the Official Secrets Act (OSA), would that stop me revealing the information in our newspaper?
I knew a little about the OSA as my dad had signed it at least twice on contracts he worked on for the Ministry of Defence, but I needed to know more.
A quick phone call to a legal friend gave me the answer I needed.
“It is a sham and a lie,” he told me, “A frightener employed by the company to keep their workers quiet.
“While the technical data about the reactors may be deemed as being in the national security interest, the health of the reactor workers definitely is not.
“This is a civil nuclear fuel facility, not bloody Faslane,” he added.
I was relieved and thanked him.
Two hours later I sat nervously in my car, parked across the road from the arranged meeting place.
A few minutes passed and a lady in her early 50s, with dyed blonde hair and wearing a green coat walked up to the bus shelter.
She looked in the direction of my car. I caught her eye and beckoned her across the road.
She bent down and looked in my open car window.
“Mr Outterside?” she asked nervously.
Her eyes were red from crying as she opened the passenger door and sat next to me.
We started to chat about the sudden change of weather – it had begun to rain – as she hurriedly took a folded letter from her handbag.
“Here it is,” she whispered.
I tried to explain that the Official Secrets Act threat was bunkum, but quickly knew her fears did not allow her to believe me.
I read the letter from top to bottom – even glanced at her husband’s name and their address which gave me a bona fide – and scribbled a few notes in my note book.
I no longer have the technical data that was included in that letter, but I was quickly able to ascertain that this poor lady’s husband had indeed received something like 23 times the safe recognised level of radioactive contamination during his years working at Trawsfynydd.
Seven days later I made my first exclusive front page splash at my newspaper. The headline rang out: “Workers health fears over radioactive poisoning”.
I was delighted to break some news that the nuclear industry did not want to become public.
Inside I felt my first buzz as a proper journalist.
But, I also thought deeply about the man – and his colleagues – who had their lives ruined by their toxic work environment.
Some years later I discovered that the man had died in 1991, “after a long illness”.
Earlier this year (2015), it was reported that the now partially decommissioned Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Station may be responsible for elevated levels of cancer found in communities downwind of it.
Research supervised by Dr Chris Busby, attached to the Latvian Academy of Sciences in Riga, showed the incidence of breast cancer was five times higher downwind from the power station than would have been expected.
Some other kinds of cancer were found at around double the expected rate.
Trawsfynydd is the only inland nuclear power station to have been built in the UK.
It has two “Magnox type CO2 cooled graphite moderated” reactors and is situated on a lake, Llyn Trawsfynydd, which acts as a cooling water source and is also a sink for radioactivity released from the plant.
A significant amount of radioactive material exists in the lake bed sediment.
The prevailing winds at the site are south westerly and more than 90% of those living downwind of the power station were surveyed by researchers working for Dr Busby.
The paper, published by Jacobs Journal of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, states: “Trawsfynydd is a ‘dirty’ nuclear power station. As it has carbon dioxide, gas-cooled graphite block reactors its releases to air are higher than most other types of nuclear reactor.
“In addition, all the liquid releases are discharged to the lake, where they have accumulated to the lake body sediment.
“Results show very clearly that the downwind population has suffered because of these exposures. This is most clear in breast cancer in the younger women below 60, where the rates were almost five times the expected.
“Additionally we see a doubling of risk in those who ate fish from Trawsfynydd lake, which supports the conclusion that it is mainly a nuclear power station effect that is being seen.”
Other forms of cancer showing elevated levels included prostate, leukaemia, mesothelioma and pancreas.
Altogether, 38 people in the area researched were diagnosed with cancer between 2003 and 2005, against an “expected” level of 19.5.
The report says: “These results are remarkable and relevant to political decisions about nuclear energy.”
Last month a spokesman for Magnox Ltd said: “Comment on the details of the study is a matter for experts in public health.
“However the radiation exposures of our workforce, and that of the general public, from authorised discharges from the nuclear industry, are well below the maximum levels authorised by independent regulatory bodies.
“The limits are set to ensure members of the public are properly protected.”
Dr Jill Meara, director of Public Health England’s Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards (CRCE), said: “Identification of disease clusters are matters for local public health teams. If those teams needs specialist support, such as in radiation epidemiology, they can talk to CRCE for assistance.”