A beach in the south of Scotland has been contaminated with radioactive particles from an old nuclear power station, raising fears that the country's nuclear legacy is not being properly cleaned up.
The pollution of part of the Solway Firth near Annan by a waste pipeline from the nearby Chapelcross nuclear station brings to four the number of Scottish beaches open to the public now known to have been tainted with radioactivity.
The Dounreay nuclear plant is facing prosecution for contaminating Sandside Bay and other parts of the Caithness coast, while Dalgety Bay in Fife has been repeatedly contaminated with radium dumped by an old military base. Last year radioactively contaminated material from an oil company was removed from a beach in Aberdeen.
The contamination of the Solway Firth has been revealed in the latest official report on 'Radioactivity in Food and the Environment'. Produced by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) and other regulators, it reported that 95 radioactive particles had been discovered on the foreshore in 2005.
This compares to a total of 31 particles found over the previous five years. The large increase is due to heavy rain and flooding last year flushing radioactivity from the Chapelcross waste pipeline, the report said.
The inside of the pipeline, which is 50 years old, is coated with radioactive limescale deposited by years of liquid discharges from the now-defunct nuclear plant. Bits are broken off and dumped on the beach around the end of the outfall by rushing water.
For several years there have been plans to build a new filter to prevent the pollution, but this has been subject to "delays", according to Sepa's report. The contamination was first discovered in 1992, it said, though it has not been publicised.
"It is deeply disturbing that yet another Scottish beach is being contaminated by radioactive pollution," said Duncan McLaren, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland.
"What is most worrying is that as old nuclear power facilities are closed down there seems to be a lack of interest being taken by anyone in making sure known pollution problems are dealt with."
McLaren pointed out that cleaning up the mess was always more difficult that preventing pollution in the first place. "We should never again be fooled into thinking that nuclear power is a pollution-free energy source," he argued.
Sepa said that it was applying "regulatory pressure" to prevent the pollution from continuing. Three more particles had been found on the foreshore in March this year, it disclosed.
Paul Dale, one of Sepa's radiation experts, stressed that levels of radioactivity from the caesium-137 deposited on the shoreline were low, and the chances of anyone coming into contact with the contamination were extremely small. Particles were removed from the beach as soon as they were discovered, he said.
"We are keeping the situation under review," he told the Sunday Herald. "As a regulatory agency we are asking Chapelcross to use best practicable means to eradicate the occurrence."
The British Nuclear Group, which is overseeing the decommissioning of Chapelcross, claimed there was no danger to the public. "We are in the process of finding ways of preventing it," said a spokesman for the state-owned company.
"We are considering a range of options including improving the filters and cleaning out the pipeline. This is not something that we want to continue happening."
Documents released by the British Nuclear Group under freedom of information legislation have also revealed that land near the entrance to the Chapelcross site has been contaminated with solvents. An internal memo from February 2002 said that Sepa had not been informed of the problem, though the agency said it since had been.
Other internal reports disclosed deficiencies in 2003 and 2004 with equipment and reactor maintenance, the rules for removing reactor fuel, fire safety arrangements and fire alarms. "Fire protection at Chapelcross does not compare well with current best practice," concluded one memo in August 2003.