MoD concealed radiation leak at A-bomb base

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The Independent Online
VITAL information about the release of radioactivity after an accident at Greenham Common airbase was withheld by the Ministry of Defence from the government-appointed committee set up to investigate it, a report says today.

Members of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (Comare) were "quite angry and disturbed" when they found that details of the 1958 accident, in which a B-47 bomber was destroyed, had been concealed, Professor Bryn Bridges, the chairman, said yesterday.

It is the third time the committee has been lied to since it was established a decade ago to advise the Government on the effects of radiation in the environment. Professor Bridges said: "I hope the climate of disclosure is changing. The public would expect it to change."

The latest case of non- disclosure meant a 1989 investigation by the committee into the high incidence of childhood cancer in west Berkshire had to be reopened. That investigation considered whether the rate could have been caused by radioactivity released from the three nuclear establishments in the area, at Aldermaston, Burghfield and Harwell. It concluded that the radioactivity from these sources was too low but did not know about the possibility of a release from the airbase.

In 1996 the Department of Health asked the committee to return to the issue after the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament said, on the basis of a secret MoD report, that a nuclear weapon had been damaged in the Greenham Common accident, releasing a burst of radiation.

In today's report the committee says there is nothing to suggest, on the basis of the information supplied to it, that a nuclear weapon was involved in the accident, in which an aircraft preparing for an emergency landing dumped fuel in the wrong part of the airbase, destroying the B- 47 on the ground. Levels of radioactivity recorded by the MoD in 1961 were no higher than known releases from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston studied in the committee's earlier report and were too low to account for the excess childhood cancers.

Professor Bridges said the excess of cancers was not unique to west Berkshire. Other counties, including Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, also have high rates which are unexplained. Although the report confirms the earlier finding, that radioactivity in the area cannot explain the cancer cluster, the committee remains concerned that the public will lose trust in its work unless organisations can be depended on to co-operate. Professor Bridges, of Sussex University, said: "The MoD is a major player in the nuclear field and its responsibility is no less than other sectors of the nuclear industry to make relevant information available."

The MoD had been "caught in an impasse" because the relevant documents were classified secret. "They couldn't tell us they existed, and because we didn't know they existed, we couldn't ask for them. As soon as we knew of them and asked for them [following the CND report], we got them."