By Bob Duncan
Residents in Kinloss may be at risk from land which is contaminated by radioactive radium, buried decades ago by the Ministry of Defence and not disclosed by the MoD when the land was later sold on.
Public safety fears were raised by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) after they found dangerously high levels of radiological activity at the former RAF Kinloss base and another five Ministry of Defence sites across Scotland, some of which were no longer owned by the MoD, but had been sold for possible development.
The agency is also currently investigating possible radioactive contamination at a further three as yet undisclosed sites, which if confirmed, would take the total to nine.
SEPA has drawn attention to a number of “Land Quality Assessments”, environmental studies carried out for the MoD, which report on land used by the military to dispose of World War II aircraft in the 1940s and 1950s. Over a thousand aircraft were “bashed, burned and buried” in areas within RAF Kinloss, some of the land has since been sold privately.
The instruments and displays in the cockpits of these aircraft contain large amounts of radioactive radium, which had been used to create a “glow in the dark” effect on the instrumentation. Parts of these aircraft are clearly visible on the surface of land which was formerly part of the Kinloss base.
According to SEPA, authorities have been aware of “potential human health and environmental risks” at RAF Kinloss since at least 2004, adding that “radiological contamination could extend to land which was sold and is no longer part of the base”.
The Ministry of Defence has so far made no comment concerning the contaminated land outside the base, stating only that "RAF Kinloss is considered suitable for its current use".
An MoD spokesman said that “a review of the quality of the land at RAF Kinloss was already under way, ahead of the transfer of the base to the Army”, adding that “The MoD is committed to assessing land quality across the entire defence estate”.
There is a great deal of anger within the Scottish Government about these revelations, and the fact that they seem to have been covered up for such a long time by the MoD. Richard Lockhead MSP, cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment has now written to the UK Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, demanding answers.
Commenting, Mr Lockhead said residents living nearby deserved an explanation:
“It's very clear that here we have another case where we need absolute transparency from the MoD – full disclosure.
"We have to understand what the situation is at that site, particularly if it is the case that we're talking about land that has been sold off and is no longer owned by the MoD. People living there, or close by, will want peace of mind."
Dr Paul Dale, SEPA's Radioactive Substances specialist said: “There seems to be an absence of records of where material was deposited and where it has been placed. We need to look at that, and we need to look at the assessments that have been done by the MoD and evaluate whether they are appropriate and whether anything further is needed.”
Fred Dawson, a former head of policy for radiation protection at the MoD, said it was vital that accurate records were kept of land which may be contaminated to allow future users to ensure radioactive material is not disturbed.
He added: "As long as radium remains buried, it's of no great concern. The problem is if it's disturbed. For instance if you're redeveloping a site, and lots of airfields have been redeveloped, you're then putting in foundations.
“It's then that you're bringing this material to the surface and into contact with people. That's really what happened at Dalgety Bay."
Radioactive contamination was first discovered at Dalgety Bay in 1990. So far, over 2500 separate radioactive hotspots have been uncovered. The health risks posed by the radioactive particles from decommissioned WW2 aircraft were known to the government at the time they were dumped, but were kept secret from the public.
In 2009, the MoD's own scientists refused to analyse particles from the Dalgety Bay site because of the risk that it could give them cancer. Former Labour PM Gordon Brown, who is the local MP for the area, was subsequently heavily criticised for his inaction after the Ministry initially refused to accept responsibility for the contamination.
In addition to RAF Kinloss and Dalgety Bay, dangerous levels of radioactive contamination have also been found at RAF Machrihanish, Royal Marine Condor near Arbroath, Almondbank near Perth and Stirling Forthside. Only the last of these appears to have so far been cleared of radioactive particles.
Three other MoD sites may also to be contaminated, but SEPA has declined to name those sites until they have had a chance to more fully investigate the dangers posed there, to avoid unnecessarily alarming nearby residents.
The revelation that radioactive contamination was present at RAF Kinloss was originally reported by Newsnet Scotland in December 2011. The report followed a Freedom of Information request made after UK Defence spokesman Andrew Robathan failed to disclose locations where radium had been buried.
In other reports it also emerged that the MoD had tried to sell off untreated contaminated land at Machrihanish. The MoD had offered the land to the Scottish Government, who refused to buy it.
The MoD agreed eventually to sell the site for £1, under a community buy out, to the Machrihanish Airbase Community Company (MACC), who were planning to raise funds in order to clean up the land.