One of Scotland’s most popular coastal resorts, used by thousands of families every year, is badly contaminated with radioactive waste dumped by an old military base, the Sunday Herald can reveal.
But in a move which has frustrated the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), angered experts and infuriated local residents, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is refusing to take responsibility for cleaning it up.
A survey commissioned by Sepa has uncovered nearly 100 radiation hotspots around the shore at Dalgety Bay in Fife.
According to government advisers, people who come into contact with the contamination could receive doses of radiation in breach of official safety limits. There is a danger of skins burn and, at worst, an increased risk of cancer.
Dalgety Bay was surveyed by Babcock Engineering Services of Rosyth during March this year. A copy of the report (pdf) summarising the results of the survey was released by Sepa last week in response to a request by the Sunday Herald.
Radioactive contamination up to 48 times higher than normal levels was found at 97 separate locations on the foreshore, the report said.
The area includes a beach and Scotland’s largest sailing club, and is next to a housing estate.
Contamination was first discovered at Dalgety Bay in 1990, prompting a flurry of official inquiries and promises to clean the area up.
During the 1990s, radioactive waste was regularly removed from the foreshore and taken to the Rosyth naval dockyard for storage. But in recent years, the report revealed, the contamination has returned – and none of it has been removed.
Sepa is now pressing the MoD for a solution. “We are committed to undertake further monitoring and removal of radioactive material, which requires the MoD’s assistance in disposal,” said Colin Bayes, Sepa’s director of environmental protection.
A full scientific investigation is needed to map out the sources and spread of the contamination, and work out how to prevent it, he argued. “The contamination at Dalgety Bay is of continued concern.”
Dr Michael Clark, a radiation expert from the government’s Health Protection Agency, said that prolonged contact with some of the waste at Dalgety Bay “could give skin exposures that exceed the radiation dose limits for the public”.
In June this year, the government Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment pointed out that cancer rates in the part of Fife that includes Dalgety Bay were unusually high. But it said the figures were hard to interpret.
According to Sepa, the radioactivity comes from waste dumped on the foreshore after the nearby naval air base at Donibristle closed in 1959. The dials of planes at the base were coated with luminous, radioactive radium so they could be read at night.
The planes were broken up and burnt along with other rubbish, then disposed of as landfill to form a new headland at Dalgety Bay.
The surrounding foreshore is now littered with bits of metal and furnace clinker which set off radiation monitors.
But the MoD pointed out that Dalgety Bay had not been a defence estate since the mid-1960s.
“We continue to work closely with Sepa to establish the cause of the contamination, but investigations so far have proved inconclusive,” said an MoD spokeswoman.
Last week, Sepa met the MoD to discuss how to tackle the pollution. Tomorrow, the agency’s radiation experts will be talking with representatives of Dalgety Bay and Hillend Community Council.
The council will be calling for the contamination to be removed as soon as possible. “The community is tired of this matter not being properly dealt with,” said chairman Colin McPhail.
Fife Council and the Scottish Executive both stressed that the risk was low. It was “disappointing” that radiation levels had not reduced, said an Executive spokesman, but the situation was being monitored.
But this wasn’t good enough for David Harvie, author of Deadly Sunshine a history of radium. “Radiation cannot be destroyed, and sweeping it under the carpet will simply not do,” he said.
SITES CONTAMINATED BY RADIUM
Dalgety Bay, Fife: A stretch of the shoreline around the Dalgety Bay Sailing Club is contaminated with radium dumped after the closure of a nearby Royal Navy air base at Donibristle.
Forthside, Stirling: Vacant land near the railway station has been contaminated with radium from an old army luminising depot.
Balloch, Dunbartonshire: A site now used as a boat yard was contaminated by MacArthur's Loch Lomond Radium Works, which closed in 1928.
Wishaw, Lanarkshire: Land next to Castlehill Primary School was contaminated by a radium plant run by Smith's Industries.
Carlisle, Cumbria: An RAF base suffered widespread contamination from radium that had been incinerated and dumped.
Source: 'Deadly Sunshine: The History and Fatal Legacy of Radium', David Harvie (Tempus, 2005).