Scots nuclear blast kept secret

Explosion was concealed from inquiry into cancer clusters
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Science Editor

An explosion which blasted nuclear waste out of the Dounreay nuclear research establishment and on to local beaches was concealed from Government experts investigating leukaemia among children living near the site, it was revealed yesterday.

Cleaning up the contamination from the explosion will take up to 20 years and may cost as much as half a billion pounds of taxpayers' money, according to some estimates.

Both the UK Atomic Energy Authority which operates Dounreay and the Scottish Industrial Pollution Inspectorate were "considerably economical with the truth", according to professor Bryn Bridges, until "we wormed the information out of them". Professor Bridges is chairman of the Department of Health's Committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (Comare), which has been investigating cases of leukaemia among children living near Sellafield in Cumbria and around Dounreay.

According to Sir John Knill, chairman of another group of experts which assisted the investigation, "to say that they were lying is a not unreasonable conclusion to reach". Sir John was until last month chairman of the Government's Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee.

The two groups yesterday published a joint report which is scathing in its criticisms of the past management of Dounreay and of the Pollution Inspectorate which was supposed to regulate environmental safety there.

The explosion, which occurred in1977, blasted fragments of irradiated reactor fuel from a 200ft-deep waste disposal shaft out over the Dounreay foreshore. Despite this, the beach remained open to the public until recently. The AEA's attempts to clean up the contamination at the time may have spread it further, according to yesterday's report and fresh particles of radioactive metal have continued to appear on the beaches from the Dounreay site.

Comare was put on to the track of the beach pollution after research showed an association between use of the beaches by children and their subsequent development of leukaemia. The biggest cluster of childhood leukaemias around Dounreay occurred after the explosion, Professor Bridges said yesterday.

However, he stressed that the committee believes that "the metallic particles are most unlikely to explain the observed excess of childhood leukaemias in the Dounreay area".

Although the Dounreay incident is much worse than the pollution of the Cumbrian coast in the early 1980s which led to the closure of beaches to the public and the prosecution of British Nuclear Fuels, the UKAEA has not been prosecuted. According to a spokeswoman for the Scottish Office, "there is only circumstantial evidence that the particles came from Dounreay." The particles are so radioactive that they are physically hot, and if swallowed could burn the stomach lining. Professor Bridges said: "What worries us is that some of the particles could cause gut damage or ulceration if they were caught under the fingernails."

The first particles were detected in 1984, but the Scottish Pollution Inspectorate said yesterday that it was still trying to identify where they were coming from. Yesterday's expert report concludes clearly that "the source of the particles is most likely the turfed soil which covers the low cliffs close to the top of the shaft and outside the site boundary. The soil and turf falls on to the beach regularly."

Sir John Knill, the RWMAC's former chairman, said yesterday: "I received the highest radiation dose I have ever recorded during my time with RWMAC while standing at the top of the waste disposal shaft."

John Baxter, the director of Dounreay, said that he had looked though the files and could find no evidence of any intention to mislead the Comare.

Since his appointment in March last year, Mr Baxter has commissioned a comprehensive survey of contamination on the Dounreay site and has brought in outside advice to assist in the general clean-up operation.