Radioactive particles on Scottish beach pose “low” risk, says SEPA

Nuclear fuel particles found on beaches near the defunct Dounreay nuclear facility in Scotland only pose low-level risk to human health, the final phase of research commissioned by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency concluded.

Fragments of nuclear fuel, which continue to turn up on beaches near the former experimental reactor, prompted SEPA to commission an enquiry into their effects on human health in 1998 (see related story).

Particles found at the site so far are “relatively low in activity.” Visible skin burns could only occur if a person encountered a particle of higher activity, according to the Health Protection Agency (HPA), which carried out the research. It estimated the chances of that happening at one in 80 million.

But the report also warned of particles with a higher radioactivity being brought onto the beach from the seabed. Such particles have not been detected since monitoring began in 1999, however, the researchers said.

The HPA looked more closely at vulnerable groups, such as people walking dogs or digging for bait on the affected beaches, and the time they spent there. It considered the possibility of people accidentally swallowing or inhaling the particles, or sand from the beach being used for children’s sandpits.

Around fifty radioactive particles have been found on Sandside Bay beaches to date. The fuel fragments “now reside in the natural environment and cannot be controlled at source,” the scientists say, accepting the monitoring and retrieval measures currently in place.

The UK Atomic Energy Agency expects the clean-up of Dounreay, which was the site of research into fast nuclear reactors from 1955 until 1994, to continue for another 30 years.

By Goska Romanowicz

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