A dozen of the sites, which include current and former air and naval bases, have not been identified before by the MoD. Some are accessible by the public or being developed for homes or businesses, though the potential risks are unclear.
The contamination comes from radium that was used to coat the dials of aircraft and other equipment so that they could be seen in the dark. It was in scrap burnt and dumped in the 1940s and 1950s, and remains radioactive for thousands of years.
The contaminated sites include the old SAS headquarters at Stirling Lines in Hereford, a former naval air base near Portsmouth, a previous home to the Red Arrows in Gloucestershire and a former RAF base at Machrihanish on the Mull of Kintyre (see table below).
The MoD has revealed the list of sites in response to a series of freedom of information requests in the wake of the discovery of dangerous levels of radium contamination at Dalgety Bay in Fife. It was home to a busy Second World War air base.
In the last three months, 475 radioactive hotspots have been discovered on the foreshore near a public footpath and a popular sailing club. Several of the finds have been radioactive enough to cause skin burns, or to significantly increase cancer risks if swallowed by children.
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency, backed by the Scottish government, is now trying to force the MoD to pay for Dalgety Bay to be cleaned up. It has threatened to formally designate the foreshore as Britain’s first radioactively contaminated land unless the MoD comes up with a credible clean-up plan by the end of February.
But the MoD has so far been reluctant to make any commitment, partly because of the precedent it might set, experts say. Now it has revealed that there are a minimum of 12 previously unknown sites suffering “localised radium contaminated soil” due to “historical activities”.
These are in addition to Dalgety Bay, and two other sites in Carlisle and Stirling that have been reported before. An unspecified number of the sites are said by the MoD’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation to have been, or to be in the process of being, remediated.
“For the remainder the potential risk is being managed through the use of appropriate site controls in accordance with MoD policy,” said an MoD spokesman. As part of a programme to assess the legacy of contaminated land, reports on over 5,000 sites have been produced.
Fred Dawson, who worked for the MoD for 31 years before he left as head of the radiation protection policy team in 2009, told The Guardian that the MoD had a “far from complete understanding of the extent and significance of radium contamination on the defence estate.”
The issue had dropped down the MoD’s agenda because of budget cutbacks, he argued. “This is in part due to the resources needed to go through old files, and the fear of what liabilities might be thrown up.”
Sites not previously known to have been contaminated with radium
HMS Daedalus, near Portsmouth: former naval air base
Defence Aviation Repair Agency Gosport, Hampshire: former aircraft repair depot
RAF Henlow, Bedfordshire: air base
RAF Newton, Nottingham: former air base
RAF Little Rissington, Gloucestershire: air base and former home to Red Arrows
Stirling Lines, Hereford: former SAS headquarters
RAF Shawbury, Shrewsbury, Shropshire: air training centre
RNAS Anthorn, Cumbria: former naval air base
RAF Machrihanish, Mull of Kintyre: former air base
Defence Aviation Repair Agency Almondbank, Perth and Kinross: former aircraft repair depot
RM Condor, Arbroath, Angus: Royal Marines base
RAF Kinloss, Forres, Morayshire: air base
Sites previously known to have been contaminated with radium
source: Ministry of Defence