Urgent analysis of the dead birds is being carried out by scientists from British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), which runs the plant, to try and determine how the contamination took place.
The birds had been taken for testing at Sellafield, Cumbria, last Friday by an inspector from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He had earlier been called to a pigeon sanctuary run by twins Jane and Barrie Robinson, in Seascale, after being asked to carry out a cull of 152 pigeons from the Robinsons' flock of around 700 birds, after complaints from other villagers that they were a health hazard.
He was worried by local rumours that the pigeons were radioactive - because they roosted at the reprocessing plant - and took them for analysis.
A BNFL spokeswoman said that the dead birds were tested for radiation in a series of batches and significant levels of radiation were found in each.
She said last night: "It is being taken extremely seriously. We have had several meetings today and top managers have been pulled out of other things to attend. We are very concerned at the health and hygiene implications of this."
BNFL scientists yesterday carried out further tests on the dead birds and at the pigeon sanctuary. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will carry out independent tests. The BNFL spokeswoman said: "What we are trying to do is differentiate between the levels on the feathers and in the flesh. That will help us to discover whether it was something they picked up or if it was something they had eaten."
The RSPCA inspector was also given radiation tests but was told by BNFL that he was not in danger. But the RSPCA said last night that in future its inspectors would wear protective clothing when handling birds in the Sellafield area.
The residents of Seascale have long been concerned that they are exposed to dangerous levels of radiation from Sellafield. As long ago as 1983 it was claimed in a television documentary - The Nuclear Laundry - that local people suffered a disproportionately high risk of developing childhood leukaemia. Subsequent scientific tests into the so-called leukaemia clusters have been inconclusive.
Last week, the Channel 4 programme The Mark Thomas Comedy Product contained an item reporting that seagull droppings taken from a local beach contained traces of radioactive isotopes.
The Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment campaign accused BNFL of not doing enough to warn the public about two recent accidents at Sellafield involving radioactive material. Martin Forwood, the campaign co-ordinator, said contaminated pigeons could pose a risk to local people. "The National Radiological Protection Board say there is no dose of radiation below which there is no risk," he said.
Last night Jane Robinson, 54, said that BNFL officials had visited her at the Singing Surf pigeon sanctuary yesterday and culled a further 200 birds, which were taken away for testing.Reuse content