A new survey for the Ministry of Defence (MoD), seen by the Sunday Herald, reveals that the gardens of up to nine houses at the coastal resort could be polluted with high levels of radium-226 from old war planes.
The MoD is now coming under growing pressure to dig out the contamination, for which it has in the past denied responsibility. It is also being asked by the Scottish government’s green watchdog to clean up the foreshore at Dalgety Bay, which is suspected of being even more polluted.
Dalgety Bay was the site of Donibristle airfield, where a large number of aircraft were dismantled at the end of the Second World War. The dials in the planes were coated with luminous, radioactive radium so they could be read at night.
The dials were removed and incinerated, along with other waste. Afterwards the remaining ash and clinker were tipped on the land and used to help reclaim some of the coastline.
Radioactive contamination in the area was accidentally discovered in 1990 by a monitoring team from the Rosyth naval dockyard. Since then intermittent surveys have been carried out, leading to the removal of 23 drums of radioactive waste to Rosyth.
Last year a firm of consultants commissioned by the MoD’s Defence Estates carried out the most detailed and intrusive investigation so far of the extent of the contamination inland. Their final report (3.3MB pdf) was posted last week on the website of the government’s Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA).
High levels of radium-226 beaming out 21 becquerels of radioactivity per gram were discovered in “ashy materials” in the gardens of two private homes. Four other properties in the same street, The Wynd, are suspected of having similar contamination, as well as possibly three other homes on two nearby streets, Sealstrand and The Spinneys.
All these houses cover an area where the radium dials were thought to have been salvaged and burnt. If the contamination is as widespread as experts believe, residents could be exposed to radiation above the Health Protection Criterion (HPC) for radioactively contaminated land agreed by the Scottish and UK governments.
“The results of the preliminary risk assessment indicate that residents of properties located on the former salvage section footprint may be exposed to doses in excess of the HPC,” concludes the report.
Studies have shown that those exposed to small doses of radiation over many years have an increased risk of cancer. Owners of properties contaminated with radioactivity from the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria have had difficulty selling them.
The MoD report recommends detailed further investigations to assess the exact nature of the risk. This would enable the MoD to make “informed decisions regarding potential future liabilities regarding the presence of potential contamination in these gardens,” it says.
According to the report, lower levels of radioactive contamination were detected at other sites in Dalgety Bay, including the local sailing club, the coastal footpath and a nearby woodland. The survey did not cover the foreshore, where a survey for SEPA in 2005 found nearly 100 radiation hotspots.
SEPA welcomed the new report from the MoD, which had been recently presented to a forum involving local people. The MoD was understood to be carrying out further work in the housing estate, which SEPA expected to consider in the near future.
But SEPA’s Allan Reid added: “However, SEPA remains concerned that the MoD has not yet committed to extend this work to the more significant contamination on the foreshore and would encourage them to undertake work in this area as soon as practically possible.”
The MoD was also urged to shoulder responsibility for the contamination by the Green MSP, Patrick Harvie. “The MoD left this toxic legacy lurking under people’s gardens and they must take responsibility for a full clean-up operation,” he said.
Harvie accused the MoD of trying to ignore the problem. “This is symptomatic of of an out-of-sight out-of-mind attitude to even the most dangerous wastes,” he alleged.
In response to questions, the MoD issued a very brief statement. “The MoD is currently working closely with SEPA to investigate any contamination issues associated with the former Donibristle airfield,” it said.