Radiation risk at Dalgety Bay was known over 50 years ago

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By a Newsnet reporter

SNP MSP Annabelle Ewing has written to the Ministry of Defence urging ministers to launch an investigation into why a UK Cabinet report written 50 years ago was not passed on to MoD officials. 

The report, written in 1958, warned of the risks of radiation at sites where wartime aircraft were scrapped and dumped – including Dalgety Bay.

The BBC says it has seen a copy of the confidential report from 1958 warning of “undesirably high levels of radiation” at sites where aircraft were broken down.  The report stated that records should be kept and “handed on to future users of the land”. 

However this was not done at Dalgety Bay, where campaigners have fought for decades to get the MoD to take responsibility for cleaning up the site currently under threat of closure due to radioactive contamination.

The report was written one year before the former airbase at Donibristle was closed.  The land was later sold for development and much of the area is now occupied by housing.

Highly radioactive particles, believed to originate in radium based paint used on instrumentation panels in the wartime aircraft, have been washed up on the beach at Dalgety Bay.  The beach is adjacent to a landfill site where wartime aircraft were burned and dismantled after WW2. 

Due to the geology of the area, particles from the landfill are being washed out of the site into the waters of the bay, where the tides in the Firth of Forth carry them onto the beach.  

The problem is so severe that it is feared that part of the beach could be designated as radioactive-contaminated land, the first time in the UK this measure will have been adopted.

The MoD argues that the leakage of particles has been caused in part by later building and development, and has refused to take responsibility for cleaning up the site.

The Ministry conducted a survey of the area in September 2011, discovering only 33 radioactive fragments.  However scientists from the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) later carried out their own survey and discovered over four hundred contaminated fragments, some of which were 76 times more radioactive than the previous discoveries.

Speaking to the Sunday Herald after the SEPA survey, SEPA’s radioactive specialist Dr Paul Dale said he had doubts over the reliability of the MoD investigation.

Dr Dale said: “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.”

Speaking to the BBC, Michael Meacher MP, former minister for the environment, said he ordered officials to identify and produce clean-up plans for all the contaminated sites in 1997.  Mr Meacher said:  “I am astonished and deeply concerned that that does not appear to have happened.”

In 2009, when local MP Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, scientists from the MoD refused to analyse particles discovered at the site, citing fears that it could give them cancer.  Mr Brown has since come under heavy criticism for taking no action to clear up Dalgety Bay when he was Prime Minister and had the authority to order the MoD to act.

Speaking in response to reports that the 1958 report had become public knowledge, the defence minister, Andrew Robathan, said:

“Where MoD is found to be a party responsible, namely, the appropriate person, in whole or part for contaminated land under the statutory regime, then we will work with the regulator and other responsible and interested parties such as landowners, to meet our portion of the liability and carry out voluntary remediation where appropriate.”

However doubts remain over the actions of the MoD and whether it has been open and transparent about the danger its previous activities pose to public health.  Ms Ewing, SNP MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, said the 1958 report raises the question as to what other information has been withheld.

She said:

“This report is deeply disturbing as someone knew about the potential risks at the site.

“I have written to the Ministry of Defence asking why, after being written in a report over half a century ago, this information was never sought out or passed on.

“I am urging the MoD to clarify the situation as quickly as possible and to take this matter forward to find out what other information has been withheld.

“Why did no-one put the interests of the people of Fife first and bring this information to light?

“The MoD has avoided dealing with this clean-up for over two decades and leaked emails even showed the UK’s health watchdog was accused of downplaying the risks of the contamination by one of its own leading advisers.

“The main concern should be for the people of Fife – they deserve better than this.”