The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is facing a ferocious barrage of criticism for botching its monitoring of Dalgety Bay so badly that it missed more than 400 radioactive hotspots, including some of the most lethal ever found on public beaches.
Former government experts, current government advisors and senior politicians have condemned the MoD’s monitoring of the contaminated Fife foreshore as inadequate, ineffectual and incompetent. According to one of the MoD’s own former radiation scientists, the ministry can no longer be trusted to do the job – though it must pay for it.
“Because of MoD’s failure to properly assess the extent and risks from the contamination, any further surveys or assessments should not be carried out by MoD, or MoD contractors,” said Fred Dawson, who worked for the MoD for 31 years before he left as head of the radiation protection policy team in 2009.
“Nor should MoD, or MoD contractors, be allowed to participate or undertake remediation work. MoD’s role should be limited to providing the necessary finance to remediate the beach.”
Dawson accused the MoD of being persistently blind to the seriousness of the pollution. “It has consistently done all that it can to avoid admitting liability for the contamination, which in all probability it caused,” he told the Sunday Herald.
Dalgety Bay is an attractive, up-market town on the Firth of Forth, famed for its popular sailing club. But in the last few weeks it has become notorious as the home to some of the most dangerous and most disputed radioactive contamination in Britain.
During the Second World War, it hosted the Donibristle military airfield and repair yard, which handled over 7,000 planes. The problem was that after the war the radium used to coat aircraft dials so that they could be seen in the dark was burnt and dumped in the area.
Radium can be a killer. It killed the Nobel-prize winner who discovered it in 1898, Marie Curie, and it killed the women workers in the US who licked the brushes they used to paint dials with it early last century.
But at Dalgety Bay it lay forgotten until it was accidentally rediscovered by a monitoring team from the nearby Rosyth naval dockyard in 1990. In the years since then, intermittent monitoring by various agencies has found and removed over 1,600 radioactively contaminated items from the foreshore, ranging from tiny particles to pieces the size of half-bricks (see timeline below).
It wasn’t until two months ago, however, that things got seriously hot. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) announced that it had found a lump of debris that was more than ten times more radioactive than anything found in the area before.
Since then, Sepa scientists have unearthed three more highly radioactive fragments, including one that was a massive 76 times higher than earlier finds. Families were told to leave the beach while it was extracted, shielded and removed to a 4-inch thick lead box, which still emits radiation 20 times higher than normal background levels.
Altogether since 12 September, Sepa has found 442 radioactively contaminated items, far more than in any previous year. What the Sunday Herald has now uncovered is that MoD monitoring of the same area in September only detected a meagre 33 radioactive particles.
The MoD, in other words, managed to miss the vast majority of the pollution. “We have doubts about the MoD's survey,” said the Sepa radiation specialist leading the Dalgety Bay investigation, Dr Paul Dale.
“We've raised our concerns with the MoD and they say it was done competently but because of what we've found we've no grounds to believe them. We don't believe that the MoD's survey was effective.”
Sepa’s loss of confidence in the MoD’s monitoring is betrayed by the minutes of a meeting in Edinburgh between the two agencies on 24 October, released under freedom of information law. It was dominated by a series of tetchy interchanges between officials.
Dale argued that it was “clearly unacceptable” for the MoD to overlook 90% of the pollution. The MoD eventually accepted that it had missed some highly radioactive contamination, and promised to examine “discrepancies in monitoring data”.
Dale also told the meeting that it would be “difficult to tell the public that monitoring has stopped.” In response, Iain Robertson from the MoD’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation “stated that Sepa do not need to tell the press”.
Dr Ian Fairlie, a radiation expert who was a senior civil servant at the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs in London, thought the MoD’s “indifference” to the risks at Dalgety Bay was characteristic. He compared it to the ministry’s “heartless denial” of the cancers suffered by nuclear test veterans, its refusal to recognise the hazards of depleted uranium weapons and its poor radiation safety in nuclear submarines and at MoD sites.
“The common factor is that defence ministers have received ill-informed advice about the real risks of radiation,” Fairlie asserted. “In my view, senior MoD officials responsible for giving this consistent misinformation to ministers should be reprimanded.”
In order help assess the dangers at Dalgety Bay, Sepa last week appointed a panel of independent experts. One of them was Dr Andrew Tyler, the head of biological and environmental sciences at the University of Stirling.
“It is clear that Sepa’s monitoring has been far more effective than that undertaken by the MoD,” he argued. “The fact that such high activity particles have been missed indicates that the MoD’s monitoring may well have been inadequate and must be reviewed as a matter of priority.”
The particles found recently at Dalgety Bay were “by far the most active to be found on any public beach and similar only to those found on the Dounreay foreshore, which is closed to the public,” Tyler said. ”The big question is how many other particles like these remain in the environment.”
Annabelle Ewing, the SNP MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, accused the MoD of consistently failing the people of Dalgety Bay. “It looks as if the MoD simply didn't look properly because it didn't want to find anything,” she said.
According to the former Prime Minister and Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, Gordon Brown, the MoD’s monitoring “may have been inadequate”. He used an adjournment debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday to put pressure on the MoD to pay for a clean-up.
This weekend he called for the MoD to be represented “at a senior level” at a local public meeting on the contamination to be held on 16 December. “The MoD must act now on the evidence that is now available to them,” he told the Sunday Herald.
Sepa has set the MoD a deadline of the end of February to come up with a credible clean-up plan. Failing that, Sepa will use its legal powers to designate Dalgety Bay as the UK’s first radioactively contaminated land to try and force the MoD to act.
So far, however, the MoD has stubbornly refused to budge – and it has notably declined to defend its monitoring. “The MoD fully appreciates the concerns of residents and has demonstrated a serious commitment to assisting Sepa,” insisted a MoD spokeswoman.
She promised that the MoD would keep working with Sepa “to identify the likelihood and scale of the residual risks and the requirement for remedial action”. The MoD was also going to join the newly established expert group.
“New radioactive sources have been found at Dalgety Bay and we take this very seriously,” said the MoD spokesman. “However, it is not yet clear what the level of risk is.”
Could the radioactive contamination kill you?
The Russian dissident, Alexander Litvinenko, died in November 2006 after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210 in a London hotel. He took about 100 megabecquerels (MBq) of radioactivity into his body.
The radioactivity of the worst contamination so far found on the public foreshore at Dalgety Bay in Fife is 76 MBq. That doesn’t mean that, if some were to get inside you, it will necessarily kill you - but experts say it could make you seriously sick.
Dr Ian Fairlie, a radiation scientist and former UK government official, pointed out that the radium-226 found at Dalgety Bay was maybe five times less dangerous than polonium-210. But its discovery at such a high level on a public beach was “worrying”, he said.
“In the very worst case, if children - heaven forbid - were to swallow such high activity particles, they would be very, very ill.”
Dudley Goodhead, the former director of the Medical Research Council’s radiation unit at Harwell in Oxfordshire who headed a government advisory committee on radiation risks, agreed. But there were also other hazards, he warned.
“One of these hot particles could cause a substantial radiation burn in the unlikely event of it sticking to the body or clothes, and much more serious harm if swallowed or inhaled,” he told the Sunday Herald.
For Fred Dawson, a former radiation safety advisor with the Ministry of Defence, the contamination was “totally unacceptable”. If the beach were a workplace, the government’s Health and Safety Executive would probably have prosecuted the managers, he argued.
“I would not be happy for either myself, my children, or my dog to be near a 76 MBq radium source hidden from view on a public beach,” he said. The radiation doses to people ingesting contamination could be 20,000 times higher than the highest doses from radioactivity emitted by the nearby Rosyth dockyard.
The latest health assessment by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), conducted just before the latest finds, concluded that the contamination on the beach was enough to give children a “significant” risk of cancer in later life.
But the assessment now needs to be redone to take account of the 475 radioactive finds since mid-September. As well as the 75 MBq lump, there were fragments emitting 13 MBq, 4.5 MBq and 3.6 MBq, compared to the previously most radioactive find of about 1 MBq.
The official advice from the UK government’s Health Protection Agency (HPA) is that the “overall health risk is likely to be low”. But key to this is a judgment of how likely it is that people will come into contact with the contamination.
The fact that sections of the foreshore have been cordoned off since 12 October reduces the risk. But Sepa has pointed out that some of the radioactive debris is identifiable parts of old military planes attractive enough for beachcombers to take home.
“The HPA continues to advise that members of the public using the area should not remove material from the beach,” said Dr John Cooper, director of the HPA’s radiation centre.
“Anyone who has been handling any material while using this beach, should ensure that they wash their hands when they leave. This advice is flagged on signs posted at the beach.”
According to Cooper, there is no reason for the walkers, families and sailing club members who frequent the foreshore to stop coming. But he added: “As a precaution, parents may wish to consider stopping their children digging in the sand.”
1939-45: Military aircraft repaired at the Donibristle airfield at Dalgety Bay, and their radium-coated dials subsequently burnt and dumped.
1990: More than 220 radioactively contaminated items found on the foreshore at Dalgety Bay
1991: 354 radioactive items found
1997-8: 131 radioactive items found
2000: 80 radioactive items found
2002: 93 radioactive items found
2005: 97 radioactive items found, and warning signs erected by Fife Council
2006: 37 radioactive items found
2008: 39 radioactive items found, and homes in Dalgety Bay discovered to be contaminated in breach of safety limits
2009-10: 128 radioactive items found
12-16 September 2011: Ministry of Defence (MoD) found 33 radioactive items
12 September-19 November 2011: Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) found 442 radioactive items
8 October 2011: a 13-megabecquerel (MBq) radioactive item found by Sepa
12 October 2011: public barred from parts of the foreshore
16 October 2011: Sunday Herald revealed that MoD scientists refused to analyse the contamination because of the risk it might given them cancer
19 November 2011: a 76 MBq lump of radioactivity found by Sepa
29 February 2012: deadline set by Sepa for the MoD to come up with credible clean-up plan
31 March 2012: If MoD fails to come up with a plan, Sepa will designate Dalgety Bay as the UK’s first radioactively contaminated land to force the MoD to act.
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