Sunday Times
July 8 2001
Suburb 'poisoned' by plutonium
Nick Fielding

SOME of the highest levels of plutonium and uranium contamination recorded in Britain have been found in a home in a suburb in southeast England.

Soil and dust collected from the Reading suburb of Earley gave readings of at least 100 times the normal background level of radiation.

Results of the tests, carried out by an independent consultant and scientists at one of Britain's top analytical laboratories, are being studied by environmental watchdogs. Although they said the levels did not pose an immediate health risk, they were "very concerned" and said the results needed further investigation.

An inquiry is also being mounted into the source. The suburb is within 20 miles of both the Aldermaston atomic weapons establishment and a Ministry of Defence site at Burghfield, where nuclear weapons are assembled.

The tests were prompted by the illness of a resident, whose doctor says he is exhibiting classic signs of radiation poisoning. Three samples were taken - one from his house and two from his garden - by Dr Kartar Badsha, an independent environmental consultant and toxicologist who has worked in the British nuclear industry and investigated chemical contamination in Vietnam.

They were analysed at LGC in Teddington, formerly the Laboratory of the Government Chemist. The house sample gave the highest reading: 54.9 bequerels per kilogram (bq/kg) for plutonium isotopes 239 and 240. This is several hundred times more than background levels. The sample also gave a high reading for plutonium 238 and for three uranium isotopes.

Plutonium is a radioactive element which does not exist in the natural world but is created by burning uranium fuel in a nuclear reactor. It is extremely toxic and lasts in the environment for thousands of years.

"The readings for plutonium are enormous," said Dr Chris Busby, of the Low Level Radiation Campaign. "You would not expect to find such figures anywhere outside an atomic plant."

The illness has wrecked the life of Ray Fox, 51, who owns the house. A former building company director, he has been forced to give up work. He believes the plutonium that he now blames for his illness may have come from a small nuclear facility which he believes was on a former industrial site beside his home.

The samples taken in the garden also gave high readings for plutonium 239 and 240 and the three uranium isotopes found in the house. One theory is that the contamination could have come from either Aldermaston, which has long been the subject of anti-nuclear protests, or from the defence establishment at Burghfield. But the proportions of the isotopes suggest they came from a nuclear reactor, not from fallout.

The extent of the pollution in Earley is highlighted by comparison with the results from an annual survey conducted by Southampton University across the south of England.

This usually finds levels of between 0.03 and 0.33 bq/kg, rising to around 7 bq/kg at Aldermaston. Some higher figures have also been found in coastal sediments near nuclear power stations. Monitoring in the late 1950s and early 1960s found that, of 254 sites near nuclear installations, only nine had readings above 3 bq/kg.

Fox is now paying for treatment from a doctor in Germany who specialises in the removal of toxins. Dr Josef Kees, of Bad Homburg, said Fox showed signs of uranium damage to his kidneys, radiation burns and a very high immuno-globulin count, consistent with poisoning from cobalt, another radioactive element.

Fox moved to the house in 1988, when there was a Shell oil depot between it and the main Reading-Waterloo rail lines. In 1990-91 the site was developed for housing. It was polluted with industrial oils and heavy metals, which were cleared by developers, but never tested for radioactive substances.

Fox's illness began in 1995 and before long he was suffering seizures, convulsions and internal bleeding. In January 1997 he was forced to withdraw from his building company. The business, which had a turnover of more than £1m a year and carried out refurbishment work at Windsor Castle and for brewery chains, employed up to 80 people. It later collapsed.

His house is at a lower level than the former Shell site and he believes this has allowed run-offs from there to gather beneath his house and garden. There is also thought to be a main drain which ran from the Shell site through Fox's garden.

Shell UK said last week "no nuclear material was ever stored or processed" at Earley.

Both the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) and the Environment Agency expressed surprise at the plutonium and uranium readings.

"While the figures do not pose a threat to health, they are higher than expected," said the Environment Agency. "We will want to look at them further once we have more details."

Dr Michael Clark, of the NRPB, said: "These are levels sometimes found near nuclear installations, so it is very surprising to find them in a house in Reading." He said the NRPB would investigate.

Wokingham district council said it would investigate to corroborate the results - and to establish any potential source.

Last night Fox's medical adviser in Britain, Dr Dick van Steenis, said he was appalled by the attitude of Berkshire health authority, which had refused to let Fox continue treatment recommended by his doctor. Van Steenis said Fox had also been denied a bone marrow test, despite support from his GP.

"He should be rehoused immediately. A full investigation of the building and the Shell site should be carried out by independent consultants," said van Steenis.

The Ministry of Defence said it would co-operate with any investigation.

Table: Certificate of analysis