Industry in crisis: The mines: Radioactive material lost at closed pit

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BRITISH COAL has been fined pounds 20,000 for losing a piece of radioactive material during demolition work at a closed Welsh pit.

Tredegar magistrates were told this week that the Marine Colliery at Cwm, Gwent, had been authorised to have a piece of radioactive caesium. It was part of an instrument used to measure the depth of coal in a bunker - the more coal, the more the amount of radioactivity reaching a counter was reduced.

During a routine review of registrations the Government's pollution inspectorate realised that the pit had closed in 1988 but there was no record of what had happened to the caesium. No information on its disposal could be found and British Coal eventually admitted that the radioactive material had been removed when the site was cleared and its whereabouts were untraceable. The source is only likely to be dangerous if it is kept close to people.

The company admitted three charges under the Radioactive Substances Act. Costs of pounds 6,400 were awarded against it as well as the pounds 20,000 fine which is the maximum fine possible in a magistrates court.

The inspectorate's director, Dr David Slater, said his organisation would be checking on British Coal to make sure no other radioactive materials went missing during the new round of pit closures. 'The loss of a radioactive source must be viewed very seriously,' he said.

The number of prosecutions carried out by the inspectorate has been rising rapidly since Dr Slater arrived 18 months ago.

In the past the organisation relied mainly on discussion and consensus to bring polluters in line but Dr Slater does not want it to be regarded as a soft touch.