The Government recently introduced a new regime for the management of contaminated land to protect both man and the environment. Recent FOIs have been asked, to try to establish the extent of the hazards and risk arsing from historic contamination due to use of radium as a luminising agent by the Ministry of Defence. This issue was also subject to a detailed review by the Governments Radioactive Waste management Advisory committee (RWMAC).
The recent concerns about this legacy of radium contamination and the potential risk to the public and environment has been highlighted by the discovery that the beach at Dalgety Bay is far more extensively contaminated than previously thought and the MODs extreme reluctance to admit liability. The MOD has also released a list of some of the sites where radium contamination is an issue.
What has become clear that MOD has little if any records about radium contamination for those parts of the defence estate disposed of between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s. What records that do exist are mainly clearance certificates which were concerned about unexploded ordnance and explosives and not with other contaminates such as Radium, heavy metals, asbestos, chemical weaopns or organic solvents.
In response to an FOI it is clear With introduction of the contaminated land regime that the MOD policy is :-
“The site was despised of in the early 1960s and predates the MOD Land Quality Assessment programme. The MOD there only holds the enclosed 1969 Clearance Certificate that might be relevant to your request.
I am advised that former sites such as this fall within the statutory responsibility of the Local authority to inspect the land in its area and identify any contaminated land. It is therefore suggested that any evidence of contamination you have should be brought to the attention of the Local Authority “
This effectively shuffles off any responsibility to identify contaminated land that the MOD once owned or controlled to the Local Authorities. Local Authorities are very unlikely to hold any information about these sites and therefore are unlikely to have the means to identify whether or not such land is contaminated.
It is clear that with the need to find cost savings MOD has lost the capability to assist local authorities in identifying contaminated defence land. MOD may have transferred information that would have helped to the National Archive or the information may have been lost or destroyed.
I asked the Local Authority “Could you please provide me with information about the nature and extent of radium contamination at RNAS/RAF Pulham in Norfolk Lat 52° 24.690'N long 1° 14.011'E”
“The historic past use by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) of part of the site many years ago for aircraft breaking raises the possibility of radium 226 contamination. The nature and extent of any possible contamination is being considered but formal investigations which require detailed planning have yet to be instigated. The Council is actively working with the Environment Agency, Health Protection Agency, MOD and others within the legal framework from government to clarify what action is appropriate to investigate the possibility of contamination.”
The Wikipedia entry for RNAS/RAF Pulham says “During World War II, Pulham Air Station was used as an aircraft salvage yard for the East of England, with several huge dumps of scrapped aircraft. The resultant contamination of the land is visible even today. The RAF used Pulham for storage and Maintenance Unit work until closure in 1958.” This activity appears to very similar to that at RNAS Donnibristle which may have lead to the contamination of Dalgety Bay with Radium.
The lack of information to identify whether or radium contamination is present means that only a very expensive physical survey will provide an answer.
The lesson to be learnt is that it is important to retain knowledge and information over long periods of time if you wish to answer questions of liability and risk.