Dalgety Bay: Radioactive Contamination and Remediation Works

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 18th April 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 11:00 am, 18th April 2023

Before I call Neale Hanvey to move the motion and the Minister to respond, I remind Members that there is not an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up in 30-minute debates.

Photo of Neale Hanvey Neale Hanvey Alba, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered radioactive contamination and remediation works at Dalgety Bay.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. At the outset, I pay tribute to the community of Dalgety Bay, the action group and the sailing club. Without their organised determination, perseverance and forbearance, I do not believe we would be approaching the conclusion of the remediation work. Indeed, one wonders whether remediation work would have begun at all. I also praise the journalism of the Dunfermline Press and The Courier, which have played an exemplary role in highlighting the concerns surrounding Dalgety Bay. They deserve credit for their investigative and supportive coverage of the issues that have developed over many years.

This long-running saga has taken place over decades, so it is important to set out the historical context. During the second world war, the Dalgety Bay area was home to Donibristle military airfield. At the end of the conflict, a large number of planes were dismantled and decommissioned, and the resulting debris was burned and buried. What has proved problematic is that radium was used to coat the instrument panels on the aircraft so that the pilots and other personnel could see the dials in the dark. It is extremely hazardous to health and has a half-life of 1,600 years.

Radium was discovered by radiation treatment pioneer Marie Curie, and it was considered a miracle element at that time, but by 1938 its toxic impact on human health had been well and truly established, principally as a result of the women who are commonly known as the radium girls. The case was properly established in 1938, when radium worker Catherine Wolfe Donohue successfully sued the US Radium Dial Company for causing her illness. Despite the established risk, there was no regulation, so the contamination at Dalgety Bay was not established until 1990.

It is only since 2011, when the health risks posed by that contamination became increasingly apparent, that part of the foreshore of Dalgety Bay has been off limits to the public. Aside from Dalgety Bay, a further 15 sites across the UK were identified in 2011 as potentially at risk of contamination from radioactive substances.

Although the fact that the matter lay fallow for two decades demands consideration, that is not the subject of this debate. Demands for the Ministry of Defence to accept responsibility and begin remediation began in earnest after the closure. On behalf of the community, I acknowledge and publicly thank my predecessors, Roger Mullin and Gordon Brown, for their efforts to keep this issue at the forefront of the minds of Ministers and civil servants. I also acknowledge the efforts of local campaigners and councillors Alice McGarry and David Barrett for their enduring work.

Speaking in an Adjournment debate in December 2013, Gordon Brown MP said that the

“responsible course is for the MOD to own up to the damage, to pick up the bill to get rid of the waste and clean up the area, and to do so as soon as possible.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2013;
Vol. 572, c. 718.]

Notwithstanding the progress that has been made towards remediation in recent years, almost 10 years on from that debate, the community of Dalgety Bay is still awaiting completion. On 15 April 2019, the then Defence Minister, Mr Ellwood, gave the following assurance:

“ Remediation is due to physically begin in April 2020 and be completed in September of the same year. The second phase of work is planned to begin in April 2021 and be completed in September 2021.”

On 18 May 2021, the then Defence Minister, Jeremy Quin, gave the following assurance to Parliament in a written answer:

“The target remains to complete all work by September 2022.”

However, dates for completion have come and gone without the work being concluded, undermining public trust and confidence in the process. On 2 March 2022, the then Defence Minister, Jeremy Quin, confirmed in a letter to me that despite decontamination and remedial work having been undertaken since May 2021 by the Ministry of Defence contractor Balfour Beatty, the timescale had slipped and

“it seems increasingly likely that work may extend into 2023 to ensure the full remediation is effectively undertaken.”

Work finally got under way on the site, following the granting of a licence by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, commonly known as SEPA, on 17 May 2021. The MOD has confirmed to me that it has removed existing infrastructure, laid ground membrane and placed rock armour on top of it. It also intends to replace the jetty and slipway.

I sought assurances in October 2020 on how MPs should contact the MOD prime contractor for the remediation works, in order to seek clarification and updates on the licence application and subsequent stages of the project. That helped to clarify that it was the responsibility of the MOD prime contractor to apply to SEPA for the licence to commence the remediation works and decontamination of the shoreline. The final contract award was made to the MOD prime contractor in February 2020. I also asked what residents of Dalgety Bay and the surrounding area can expect in terms of disruption to their lives, and what visual remediation would take place on site. The MOD confirmed in a parliamentary written answer on 14 May 2019 that implementation of the agreed management strategy would involve

“the removal of radium sources;
the reinforcement, replacement and extension of coastal armour stone and the construction of a replacement slipway at Dalgety Bay Sailing Club.”

Key milestones in the progression of this work have included the appointment of Balfour Beatty as the MOD prime contractor, and the development of a construction plan in consultation with Fife Council, in order to minimise disruption to the local community.

In concluding, I pose the following questions to the Minister. What recent discussions has his Department had with SEPA and Fife Council on the remediation of the coastline at Dalgety Bay and on carrying out this work in a timely manner? What is his current estimate of the costs of the remediation works? Will he confirm, for the avoidance of doubt, that all costs will be borne by the MOD? When did officials from his Department last visit the site where the work is being carried out? Will he provide an undertaking to visit the site and inspect it during the period of the remediation works? What recent advice has his Department received in relation to the risks to health from radioactive pollution particles found at Dalgety Bay? Will he publish that advice? Finally, what ongoing monitoring will take place, once the remediation works have concluded?

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

Before I call the Minister, I gently remind the hon. Member that in this House we do not refer to Members by name. In this case, he should have referred to Jeremy Quin.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence 11:09 am, 18th April 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes, and thank you for calling me to speak. I congratulate Neale Hanvey on securing this important and constructive debate regarding radioactive contamination at Dalgety Bay. We met on 21 March to update him on the remediation works, and I am grateful to him for this opportunity to update the House, as I am to all those who have helped to keep this important issue on the agenda. It falls to me to update the House on the work to clean up this beautiful part of Fife, Scotland and the wider United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman helpfully summarised the background to this issue. I will not detain the House by rehearsing all the details again, but it is worth reiterating some of the more salient facts. In 1990, the first in a series of radioactive objects and particles was located on the shore of Dalgety Bay. As the hon. Gentleman indicated, the material is thought to have originated from an eroded landfill site containing debris from the second world war—specifically, aircraft that had radium painted on their dials to make them luminous in the dark. To be clear, that contaminant was buried using the best practice at the time. Frankly, it is not entirely clear how material that appears to have been buried about a kilometre away from where it was ultimately found got from place A to place B, but the fact is that that appears to be the most likely source.

The amounts involved are small. It is worth reflecting on the fact that the particles are smaller than a grain of rice, and both Public Health England and SEPA have concluded that the threat to people using the beach is very low. Nevertheless, the existence of radioactive material, in a place where people walk and children play, clearly created a theoretical risk, however slight, that such particles might be breathed in, swallowed or come into prolonged contact with skin. On that basis, in July 2013, following an investigation by SEPA, the Ministry of Defence agreed to carry out the work to remove those radium particles on a voluntary basis. This is at a cost of around £15 million, and I stress that there was absolutely no legal requirement on the Ministry of Defence to do so. However, we decided to take that step.

The hon. Gentleman has, quite properly, referred to the period of time that has elapsed since then. Before the physical work could begin, it was necessary to agree the extent of the work with SEPA, the protocols for removing the contaminant, the protocols to carry out investigations, and the design of the infrastructure. The tendering also had to take place. All of that was done within the expected timelines for a project of this scale. Thereafter, there had to be protracted discussions with landowners about access. It was then necessary to procure a contractor, which was a difficult process, not least because there was only one applicant to do that job; there was not a cast of thousands bidding to do the work. Then there were unforeseeable issues with the contractor, which sought to renegotiate the contract after it had been awarded, and there was the issue of statutory licences. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman indicated, those statutory licences were not issued until the spring of, I think, May 2021.

In any event, the project finally got under way in spring 2021, and it is worth reflecting on the scale of the operation. It is not just an enormous endeavour, but a hugely complex one. Nothing like this has ever been done before in the UK. After all, we are searching through many tonnes of sand and soil for minute radioactive particles. Let me just give the House a brief sense of what is involved. Essentially, material is scooped up from the beach and poured on to a specifically designed conveyer belt, which then passes under eight detectors that are sensitive enough to detect tiny traces of radiation. If a particle is detected, workers wearing safe clothing and gloves use a handheld monitor to locate it, before removing it with a trowel. Each one has to be physically and manually removed. Particles are then securely packaged and stored, before being taken away to be safely disposed of.

By the end of last year, over 3,500 individual particles had been picked out by hand. By the time the operation concludes, the team estimate that they will have dug up, scanned and replaced some 7,500 cubic metres of beach, which is equivalent to three Olympic-sized swimming pools. On top of that, they will have installed a ground membrane, rock armour—in plain English, big lumps of hard-wearing rock—and a replacement slipway and jetty, as the hon. Gentleman referred to. All of those will provide a wider environmental boost to the local community.

That is the job, but where have we got to? I am delighted to say that we are on track to finish all of the work by this September. There was a necessary pause over winter to protect nesting birds, in line with Scottish Natural Heritage guidelines. Following that, work began again on the remediation project at the start of April. Regarding updates, over the coming months Ministry of Defence officials will continue to attend Fife Council’s south and west Fife area committee meetings alongside SEPA to provide updates. Those records are in the public domain, and I would be only too happy to answer questions from the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath as and when they arise.

The hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions. We wrote to him at the end of March following our meeting. I hope he received that. We did not get an acknowledgment, but that communication contained some of the information he requests. The costs are over £15 million. Officials visit the site regularly. I do not know whether I will be able to do so—I will discuss that with my officials—but the Ministry of Defence is in place there, and I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman on the issue of ongoing monitoring.

To conclude, few could have predicted at the end of the second world war how artifacts from that dreadful conflict might return to impact the present. The residents of Dalgety Bay have waited some time to be able to enjoy what is a stunning part of the Fife coastline. I pay tribute to those who have fought hard to get the work done. I am pleased to say that the job will soon be over.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.