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Radioactive Legacy

Duration:
26 minutes
First broadcast:
Wednesday 02 May 2012

A pretty town on the Fife coast remains under threat of an unwelcome distinction. A corner of Dalgety Bay could still become the first place in Britain to be branded as radioactive contaminated land if the Ministry of Defence does not follow through on a plan to deal with radioactive particles washing up on its shore. The MOD's accused of causing the contamination in the first place: aircraft containing potentially hazardous radium were smashed up and buried after the Second World War. The MOD's investigating the scale of the problem and ways it might be put right, but has not promised a full and final clean-up of the bay. That's despite calls for it to do so from the local MP and former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and a recent discovery of particles far more radioactive than those previously found. Yet Face the Facts reveals how the MOD has cleaned up other sites deemed far less radioactive; how it's sold off contaminated land for development with radium undetected; how a lack of records means it does not know where similar sites might be and how a confidential government report we've seen from the 1950s warned of the danger of radium dumps being forgotten or, in the case of privately-owned land, deliberately concealed.

Presenter: John Waite
Producer: Jon Douglas.

  • A section of beach cordoned off at Dalgety Bay

    A section of beach cordoned off at Dalgety Bay

  • A view across to the Forth Bridge from the headland at Dalgety Bay

    A view across to the Forth Bridge from the headland at Dalgety Bay

  • The cordons have now been replaced by a new fence

    The cordons have now been replaced by a new fence

  • A sign on a tree next to Dalgety Bay sailing club informs the public of radioactive finds

    A sign on a tree next to Dalgety Bay sailing club informs the public of radioactive finds

  • Houses look onto the section of beach which has been closed

    Houses look onto the section of beach which has been closed

  • From the headland at Dalgety Bay you can see Edinburgh in the distance

    From the headland at Dalgety Bay you can see Edinburgh in the distance

  • Looking across from Dalgety Bay to the Forth Bridge on a sunny evening in Spring

    Looking across from Dalgety Bay to the Forth Bridge on a sunny evening in Spring

  • Transcript

    THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

    FACE THE FACTS: Radioactive Legacy

    Sound effects: Air raid siren and bombing; Lancaster bomber overhead

    Archive - Churchill speech
    The gratitude of every home in our island goes out to the British airmen who undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion.

    Waite
    After the end of Second World War, Britain had thousands of combat aircraft it no longer needed. Today, they'd be carefully dismantled at designated disposal sites, but back then they were simply smashed up, burned and buried. Most, however, contained a radioactive material - Radium 226 - and that hasn't remained buried, at least not in a picturesque corner of the Fife coast - Dalgety Bay. Its local MP and former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, blames the Ministry of Defence for dumping waste which has meant for years radium particles have washed up on the beach - the most recent capable of causing radiation burns. But our investigation shows that this is not the only place affected despite a confidential government report from decades ago which we've obtained and which expressly warned of the risks posed by such sites.

    Actuality
    Hello.

    Hello Colin how are you doing?

    Alright - are you down here for the nice evening?

    Waite
    Colin McPhail is a retired civil engineer. He's lived in Dalgety Bay - across the river Forth from Edinburgh - for more than 30 years and chairs its community council.

    McPhail
    Some of the particles are leaching out of the headland here and of course they'll end up in tidal form between here and the jetty and the two slipways there.

    Waite
    The headland is man-made - you can see photos on our website - and is one of the locations where remnants of World War II aircraft are buried. Coastal erosion is blamed for debris escaping and, for 20 years, washing up on a small section of the beach.

    McPhail
    I think everybody's fed up with it now, the attitude is okay let's get something done about it, try and get it resolved once and for all and get on with our normal lives.

    Waite
    So how - and why - did a popular commuter town, which was only built in the 1960s come to have such unacceptably high levels of radioactivity?

    Archive - Air Ministry clip
    The nerve centre of the RAF is in London and the Air Ministry in Whitehall where the Air Console meets to say when and where and how.

    Waite
    The Royal Air Force and, before that, the Royal Naval Air Service maintained a base at Donibristle, now Dalgety Bay, where unwanted aircraft were smashed up. Inside their cockpits, the instrument dials had been daubed with a sticky, sweet-smelling paint that glowed in the dark and so was visible to pilots. Its luminous properties came from Radium 226. Historian, David Harvie.

    Harvie
    The policy was bash, burn and bury and that's exactly what they did. They simply hit them with great sledgehammers into smaller pieces. And when they had kind of big chunks of aircraft rather than whole aircraft they had bonfires and what was left after the bonfires they buried. Radiation can't be destroyed or diluted; you can't just throw it away. So it should be identified and it should be removed to an authorised disposal site.

    Waite
    But an "authorised disposal site" didn't exist in those days and there was no regulation. Burying radium does work but only as long as it stays buried.

    Sound effects : Dalgety Bay: water laps on the shore
    (Recorded on Location) And here on the beach below me at Dalgety Bay - with its sailing club to my right and woodland and houses on my left - we know that radium is not completely buried. And the Scottish Environment Protection Agency is in little doubt as to its source. Dr James Gemmil and first Dr Paul Dale from SEPA have been telling us about some of the objects that have washed up.

    Dale
    We have found dials which have been luminised and if you look on the back of the dial effectively it'll give you a unique identifier that you can trace back to MOD dials that were installed in planes. And indeed MOD has accepted that the waste did arise from their activities.

    Gemmil
    They haven't yet accepted liability, they have agreed to take forward the investigation and development of remediation options voluntarily.

    Dale
    The hazard posed by these sources is very variable according to the amount of activity which is within them so there is an entire range from very low activity sources which are of no consequence to human health to sources which potentially could give you a skin burn in a very short period of time. Some of the contamination is physically much smaller and some of the sources are more active - there's more radioactivity in there - that means that there's a potential for people to actually accidentally get them into their mouths and swallow them but equally it could wedge under fingernails and these types of things which allow people to be exposed.

    Waite
    The MOD has been monitoring the area and removing radioactive material. But last autumn, following the discovery of particles 10 times more radioactive than anything previously found there, SEPA said they could pose a "significant hazard to human health"- the Ministry refused to commit to anything more than its yearly checks. Much to the dismay of Dr Dale.

    Dale
    It was no longer acceptable to do an annual monitoring programme at Dalgety Bay because that didn't afford the public an appropriate level of protection and what we needed is to give the public that level of protection and that's why we brought forward with considerations of undertaking designation where it's contaminated land.

    Waite
    And that would be an extraordinary step. To officially designate a piece of land as "radioactive contaminated" would be a UK first. It would stay on the public records forever, regardless of whether or not there was ever a clean-up.

    Sound effects : Background chatter at public meeting

    Vox pop
    I've got a little granddaughter and I love taking her down that bay, at the front, overlooking the beach, she loves it but now I'm a bit reticent to take her down, I'm a bit frightened at times in case she picks up anything and puts it in her mouth.

    Public meeting actuality
    McPhail
    Good evening ladies and gentlemen. First of all can you hear me at the back?

    Waite
    For the time being, the threat of designation has been lifted. The Ministry of Defence eventually agreed to do more investigatory work which will take until next May to complete. Meanwhile, around 100 yards of the beach remains fenced off. But the MOD has not promised to fund a full and final clean up so the risk of designation remains. Community council chairman, Colin McPhail, is critical of the Ministry's stance.

    McPhail
    It is insulting because many people here - ex dockyard workers, members of the armed forces - done their bit for their country and my view the Ministry of Defence is responsible for the defence of the realm which also includes the defence of our quality of life - and that's what the issue is here.

    Waite
    And backing Mr McPhail in his attempts to get that issue finally resolved is a former Prime Minister: Gordon Brown is the local MP.

    Brown
    We have nuclear power stations, we have nuclear submarines, we have nuclear bases, we have nuclear weapons and it would be very strange indeed if this small area of beach in Dalgety Bay became the only radiation contaminated area in Britain and the reason is that the Ministry of Defence have not yet acknowledged their responsibility for dumping the aircraft there in the first place. I think in the last year, when it's had to realise there is a problem that's got to be solved, and perhaps when it's had to understand that there are other areas in the country where there are contaminated parts that may also have to be removed, they've started to use the lawyers to get out of what is in the first place I think a moral responsibility and in the second place will become a legal responsibility.

    Waite
    But I mean you were Prime Minister, you could have ordered this all to be sorted out couldn't you, why didn't you do that?

    Brown
    We had been investigating this problem for many, many years, all these surveys revealed that while the planes had been broken up and stored there that there was no health risk of any substantial nature to the population. It's only in the year 2011, a few months ago, that for the first time we understood that there was a major potential health risk and that something had to be done. And it's when you find out that's the case that's when you've got to act.

    Waite
    Since the MOD closed its base at Dalgety Bay in 1959, a new town has sprung up; two new industrial estates have been developed. And so, behind-the-scenes, the Ministry is arguing that whilst the radium might be from its former activities, the fact radioactivity's escaped from where it was buried may be down to the actions of developers. Yet, as we've discovered, even before it sold off the land, the Ministry should have known - certainly the government knew - that its 'bash, burn and bury' policy posed a problem at airfields all over Britain.

    Music - Jerry Lee Lewis, Great Balls of Fire

    1958 and Jerry Lee Lewis is in the charts; the MOD is preparing to decommission its site at Dalgety Bay and in Whitehall a panel of experts is completing a confidential government report on the disposal of radioactive waste. We've seen it and it has an entire chapter dedicated to radium 226. It talks of private companies - which supplied radium for use in clocks and watches for example - storing radioactive waste in air raid shelters, tea chests, petrol drums. The report - sitting in the national archives and, as far as we're aware never before reported - stressed the need for a "national disposal service" particularly for military sites.

    Reading - Disposal of Radioactive Waste Report
    There is little harm from the single watch or clock disposed of with the house refuse, since it can be safely handled and the material is virtually insoluble. But a different situation exists, for example, at premises where aircraft are broken down and the instruments are accumulated in heaps. We feel there may be need for control over the ultimate destination of these instruments, since there may be undesirably high levels of radiation near these dumps.

    And that's not all.

    Reading: Records of burials and of burial sites should be kept and handed on to future users of the land.

    Yet comprehensive records were not kept and while the report warned of the risk of radium waste sites on privately-owned land being "deliberately concealed" or, in other cases simply "forgotten" - that is precisely what has happened. The radioactive material at Dalgety Bay, for instance, was discovered purely by chance in 1990 - 30 years later.

    Brown
    Well this report seems to have been done just about the time that lots of old parts of aeroplanes were being dumped in this area in Dalgety Bay and the truth is that at that point someone did know that there was a potential problem, someone should have then passed it to the Ministry of Defence and urged them to take the appropriate action and I think what we've now got to find out is what actually happened after that report for an interdepartmental committee of the Cabinet was done, who was then instructed to act upon it and why no action was taken.

    Waite
    And "no action was taken" either at RAF Carlisle in Cumbria. There had been extensive use of 'bash, burn and bury' at that military site too with radium dumped at shallow depths. Yet once again it has only been found by accident. And as we've discovered the eventual clean-up by the Ministry of Defence in the 1990s cost well over £1 million.

    Large
    This is an old military site...

    Waite
    Nuclear consultant, John Large, showed me where an old luminising factory used to stand near his home in Woolwich. It's where the military coated dials, escape hatches even gun magazines with glow-in-the-dark radium paint.

    Large
    When they decontaminated this site they were actually removing the tiles from the window ledges because that's where the dials had been put out to dry on a nice day.

    Waite
    So they were contaminated with radium - the window ledges?

    Large
    Yeah and the workers there could actually trace where the works lavatories were because they could trace the footprints of people who had gone from their workstations with contaminated footwear. This site is safe because it's got a certificate but the point is there are lots more sites that have not been cleaned up that are yet to be discovered. And that's where the risk is.

    Waite
    But no one seems to know the exact number or all the exact locations. A government study suggested "the likely number of places in England and Wales where activities took place capable of giving rise to radioactive contamination was in the range of a hundred to a thousand" although the best guess was between 150-250 and not all of those would be former MOD sites nor contain radium. Nuclear consultant, John Large calculated a figure in excess of 500 back in the 1990s, when the authorities of the day seemed concerned enough to act.

    News clip
    The government has promised action to clean up unmarked radioactive waste dumps all over the country. Some estimates put the cost at hundreds of millions of pounds.

    Waite
    In the news, the then environment minister, Michael Meacher.

    Archive - Michael Meacher news clip
    It is a significant and serious form of contamination which in our view should have been dealt with much earlier but that has not happened, we are going to deal with it as quickly as we can - we take this seriously and we do intend to take action as fast as we reasonably can.

    Waite
    Given that pledge, 15 years ago, and contaminated sites clearly still an issue I asked Michael Meacher for an explanation.

    Meacher
    I was environment minister and it is my responsibility, I entirely accept that. When I became a minister in '97 this issue arose probably as a result of the findings at Dalgety Bay but I was very concerned and I took the view and made it very clear to my department that these sites had to be identified and a clean-up plan in every case produced. I am astonished and deeply concerned that that does not appear to have happened and I've written again to MOD, to the Environment Agency and to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency to ask what plans they have to deal with known sites in their area. This is not information which should be kept secret from people, this is to do with the public health of the nation and people have a right to know.

    Waite
    And MPs in Parliament would like to know - several have asked only recently - for the MOD to identify both its former and current sites that have been found to be contaminated with radium. Six months ago, a list - of sorts - was finally produced, though naming just 13 locations across the UK. Leaving nuclear consultant John Large troubled.

    Large
    There's many other sites apparently to be discovered, I mean just last December the MOD announced other sites that had not been declared before. So there are problems. What we have here is a list of activities carried out by the Ministry of Defence that it's not been completely open with, either because it wishes to remain that way or it doesn't know itself.

    Waite
    Although the MOD was asked to provide MPs with a full list of current and former sites found to have been radioactively contaminated, the Ministry's answer was restricted simply to the ones on which - since 1995 - it's carried out official "land quality assessments". And so the list didn't even include the most high profile site of all: Dalgety Bay, nor RAF Carlisle which, you'll recall, the MOD spent over a million pounds cleaning up. Also missing - Ditton Park Compass Observatory at Slough; the Royal Naval Depot at Eaglescliffe and two other sites at Aldershot. They're not difficult to find, they're listed in a government report from 2000 and one which you might expect the Ministry of Defence to know about since it's been working on that report's recommendations ever since.

    Then there's the old Inglis Barracks at Mill Hill, already mentioned in Parliament 10 years ago, when the defence minister said the MOD would be removing contaminated material even though only "low levels of radioactivity" had been found. Curious then that the Ministry won't commit today to clean up Dalgety Bay where high levels of radioactivity have been discovered.

    Hilsea Lines in Portmouth, another puzzle, a former military base, radium contaminated, and 'officially' cleaned-up in 1978. Yet 25 years later, a change in safety standards meant Portsmouth City Council felt another clean-up was necessary because:

    Reading
    Radioactivity in excess of background was identified, some associated with rare isolated particles with high levels of radium.

    So just how seriously does the Ministry of Defence take radioactive contamination caused by its own past activities? Well, it's certainly got better at identifying radioactive contamination on land which it still owns, as one man with personal insight told me. He's Fred Dawson, a health and safety specialist at the MOD for 30 years latterly as Head of Policy for Radiation Protection.

    Dawson
    I think during the 1980s radium was recognised as a significant issue with particularly instances like RAF Carlisle where there was a major contamination and also the Admiralty Compass Observatory over at Slough. So systems were put in place to actually manage this particular issue through a programme of land quality assessment, particularly where land was being sold off. It was recognised there was a need to identify risks and do something about them and to tell the purchasers of the land where there was a problem. The issue though, as far as I was concerned, is that these sites that were sold off and disposed since the war and up to the '80s the risk there and the hazard hasn't been properly quantified.

    Waite
    So there was no attempt to go back to old sites you're saying?

    Dawson
    No I don't think there was a priority at all to go back to old sites.

    Waite
    Like Dalgety Bay?

    Dawson
    Well I don't recall any action going back to Dalgety Bay and the contamination was discovered by accident anyway.

    Waite
    Was there any suggestion that the MOD was not looking for this stuff because it might well find it if it did - don't lift up stones you never know what's underneath?

    Dawson
    I think there's always a little bit of reticence about going back and looking for trouble, particularly when resources are scarce.

    Waite
    A government report in 2000 provided an insight into why the MOD apparently knows so little about what it used to do and where. The Radioactive Waste Management Committee stated that, historically, the Ministry had no policy of retaining records - in fact its policy had been to destroy them. It concluded this "lack of detailed data on sites and their disposal makes it nearly inevitable that some land contaminated by luminising activities will have been transferred undetected out of MOD". In other words, sold to developers with no one the wiser. Consultant John Large.

    Large
    In our research in the '90s very certainly there were sites that were taken over by property developers, unknowing I would say, who then developed and then researching down at the Public Records Office identified those sites to be radioactive. When we approached, in one example I remember, the property developer and asked what safeguards they put in place.

    Waite
    This had houses on did it?

    Larges
    Houses yeah, and none whatsoever and the phone went down. There's a problem with radioactivity, public perception.

    Waite
    So how should the public perceive the risks - how harmful can radium be? Take Dalgety Bay: there, out of more than 2,000 particles removed to date, it's a very small number registering high activity that have caused the most alarm. Professor Alex Elliott chairs the government's independent committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment.

    Elliott
    Radium is an alpha emitter which is a type of radiation which travels a very short distance in tissue and so if it's outside of you then there is really no risk to the internal organs, the risk is to the skin. If however you actually manage to ingest, i.e. swallow it or inhale it, then it can do a great deal of damage because the radiation is delivered into a very small amount of tissue. If you ingest it then it can either lodge directly in, let us say, the lung, in which case the radiation will affect local areas of the lung, it will irradiate those tissues, may cause changes which can cause lung cancer directly. Whereas if it's external to your body then the organ which is being irradiated is only the skin and the most likely scenario is one of radiation burn and that will occur well before you reach a radiation dose which would cause skin cancer.

    Waite
    And you have found quantities of material at Dalgety Bay that's such that if someone held it for a while they would be burned by it?

    Elliott
    Yes there have been a few sources, a small minority of what's been found so far, which if you, let's say, held it in your hand or if it was trapped under your fingernails because some of these particles are quite small or indeed in the case of the largest object which we've found, let's say that someone put in their pocket, then within a matter of minutes they would suffer a radiation burn which would form an ulcer and would require medical treatment.

    Waite
    The concern at Dalgety Bay is that some particles have now been found which are small enough to ingest. But realistically what are the chances of coming to harm? Mary Morrey is from the Health Protection Agency.

    Morrey
    We are quite confident in our assessment that the public health risk is extremely low at Dalgety Bay from the contamination. This is based on not just the finds that have been made recently but our whole collection of information that's been collected over the last 20 years of monitoring at that beach. Of course we reviewed our assessment of the situation when these new larger objects were found but because they were buried at depth they are not being found on the surface we saw no reason to change our public health advice.

    Waite
    So should people living in that area be concerned?

    Morrey
    As long as they follow sensible precautions that are advised locally, such as do not actively dig things up on the beach and take them home, wash your hands if you've been playing in the sand or whatever, then they have no reason whatsoever to be worried.

    Waite
    But for Professor Alex Elliott, too little is known, he says, to quantify the risk yet. More intensive checks are needed to establish, among other things, how widespread the contamination is. So how is it that SEPA - the Scottish Environment Protection Agency - talks of a "significant hazard to human health"; whilst as we've just heard the Health Protection Agency talks of a low risk?

    Elliott
    What SEPA have done is to say that the highest activity particles found would cause damage to health and there is absolutely no doubt that they would cause significant damage. The HPA have taken the probability of encountering a particle and multiplied that by the risk and so their resulting sum is, in their view, a number which is very low and therefore there isn't a problem. That doesn't, however, mean an individual particle can't cause significant harm, so we're back to what I was saying that you need to know what the density of particles is on that beach.

    Waite
    But at least at Dalgety Bay radium has been identified and the authorities are busy investigating. Arguably of more concern are the places of which we've lost track, where radium remains undetected posing an unknown hazard. Fred Dawson, formerly of the MOD, is doing his bit to identify such locations.

    Dawson
    Now you can see from the photograph here the remains of things like B17s, B24s or Lancasters, it looks like a junkyard for aircraft rather than cars and everything's in pieces. There are reasonable grounds for the potential for radium contamination.

    Waite
    Fresh photographic evidence of yet another site - this one in East Anglia - for the authorities to consider. In England and Wales, it's now down to local councils to inspect such land. But what about that age old concept of the polluter paying? The MOD concedes it may well be the polluter but it may not be paying, trying to suggest, you'll remember, that developers could be to blame for disturbing its buried radioactive waste. That doesn't sit well with nuclear consultant John Large.

    Large
    There's a moral responsibility - we charge headlong into nuclear technology - nuclear military technology, nuclear civil technology - we're responsible for that, we really should clear up the mess afterwards. It's no good saying that someone else will solve this problem in future or it's so bad we can't do anything about it or it's such a low problem and risk it's not worth doing anything. There's a moral responsibility.

    Waite
    There are legal requirements to keep exposure to radiation as low as reasonably possible. Yet when we invited someone from the Ministry of Defence to discuss its commitment to dealing with radioactive waste at its own former sites, we were turned down. A statement of just seven lines says the MOD's current investigation - a "key milestone in understanding the situation at Dalgety Bay" - is continuing. The Ministry told us it will meet any statutory obligations and pay its portion of any liabilities but only if it is "found to be a party responsible". And, as we've reported, the Ministry seems keen to find someone else - like a developer - to share or carry the blame and the costs of a clean-up. No doubt of interest to any such developer will be that confidential government report from the 1950s which stated records of contaminated sites should be kept and passed on to future users of the land. Not that the MOD has had anything to say about that - in fact it seems pretty reticent all round. When evidence of that latest suspected site - the one in East Anglia we mentioned - was submitted, they said it was the local council's job to investigate. And when we checked with that council to see how it's getting on……

    Reading
    We made detailed enquiries contacting the Ministry of Defence, Environment Agency, Health Protection Agency, Food Standards Agency, Trading Standards and Anglian Water. The MOD to date has not responded despite two further requests.

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