The health of visitors to one of Scotland’s most popular coastal resorts is being put at risk from radioactive contamination because the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has withdrawn from monitoring the area.
The government’s Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) is now threatening to take legal action to force the MoD to keep cleaning up Dalgety Bay in Fife, which is being repeatedly polluted by dangerous radioactive debris from the Second World War.
Some of the particles found on the foreshore near a sailing club used by thousands of families are so highly radioactive that they could be lethal if they found their way inside the body. According to Sepa, outside the body they are “hot” enough to cause radiation burns on exposed skin.
Dalgety Bay was the site of the old Donibristle military airfield, where a large number of aircraft were dismantled after the end of the Second World War in 1945. The dials in the planes were coated with luminous, radioactive radium so they could be read at night.
The dials were removed and incinerated in a “bash, burn and bury” policy, along with other waste. The resulting ash and clinker was dumped as landfill to help reclaim part of the headland on the bay.
Radioactive contamination in the area was accidentally discovered in 1990 by a monitoring team from the Rosyth naval dockyard. Since then a series of monitoring operations have been carried out, leading to the removal of 23 drums of radioactive waste.
The latest survey carried out by the MoD’s Defence Estates found 128 radioactively contaminated items on the foreshore over the last 18 months, ranging from tiny grains of sand to lumps of rock the size of half-bricks.
The most contaminated item was emitting around a megabecquerel of radioactivity, a level high enough to seriously endanger health, Sepa says. The foreshore is being continuously re-polluted by about a hundred particles a year which may be being swept ashore from the headland by sea currents.
Paul Dale, Sepa’s radioactive substances specialist, pointed out that surveys over the past 20 years had consistently found serious radioactive contamination at Dalgety Bay. There was a real risk to the public, he warned.
“Recent surveys conducted by Defence Estates provide further evidence that following removal, particles, some of which are of significant activity, continue to be deposited on the beach and could potentially cause significant radiation doses to members of the public,” he said.
But representatives of Defence Estates told a meeting of the specially-established Dalgety Bay Forum last week that they had no current plans to continue monitoring and removing the contamination. The meeting agreed that further monitoring was necessary, but came to no agreement about how it should be done.
Sepa has recently been given new legal powers under the 2007 Radioactive Contaminated Land Regulations, and is now considering whether to use them to force the MoD to carry on clean-up operations. “Sepa will be writing to Defence Estates asking that consideration is given to continuing the programme of monitoring and recovery at Dalgety Bay,” said Dale.
“Sepa will also be undertaking further work on the particles recovered to determine their mass, dimensions and activity which could take up to six months.”
The Dalgety Bay Sailing Club is one of the biggest in Scotland, running regular regattas and evening activities. It is keen to stress that it is still very much open for business, despite the contamination.
“Whilst acknowledging the contamination and working with all parties to see it permanently removed, straightforward common sense and hygiene precautions will mitigate risks from possible exposure to any radioactive particles,” said the club’s spokesman, David Burnett.
“Notices explaining the situation are posted around the club grounds and inside the club and we encourage members and visitors to take cognisance of them,” he added. The club was working to find “some options that may move us closer to a contamination-free area”.
A spokeswoman for the MoD said: “We continue to liaise with the Dalgety Bay Forum and Sepa on this issue, and are working hard together to find a resolution. We also maintain close contact with local residents and actively seek to understand and address their concerns.”