University study shows low radiological risk to the public around atomic sites

A study team led by experts at the University of Southampton has found that there is no significant risk to the public from radioactive contamination from the Atomic Weapons Establishments at Aldermaston and Burghfield in West Berkshire.

The three-year environmental radioactivity project, carried out by the University’s Geosciences Advisory Unit at the Southampton Oceanography Centre, examined over 600 soil and other samples from a wide variety of locations and environments.

Doctor Ian Croudace, who led the study said: ‘The results show the integrated effect of past depositions from the AWE sites. Only minute quantities of Uranium and Plutonium have been transferred to the environment in spite of the Plants having a history ranging from the early Fifties, through the Cold War period to the present day. The minute quantities, found using highly sensitive methods, are not considered to pose a hazard to the public.’

‘The very small amounts of contamination are predominantly found within 2.5 kilometres of the main AWE site at Aldermaston and are mostly confined to woodland sites.’

The Atomic Weapons Establishments at Aldermaston and Burghfield in West Berkshire have been the centres of the UK nuclear defence programme since the early 1950s. This latest study was to assess the distribution and magnitude of any AWE-derived contamination of uranium and plutonium.

A highly sensitive and precise method, using the Southampton Oceanography Centre’s multi-collector plasma mass spectrometer, was employed to examine isotopic compositions in soil samples collected around the two nuclear sites to decide how much contamination there was and where it came from. Possible sources were either AWE or the atmospheric weapons fallout that mostly occurred from 1952-1963.

Contamination of the environment around nuclear facilities by uranium and plutonium has potentially significant environmental and political consequences. The situation around the two weapons sites in West Berkshire has been a cause for public concern for several decades partly because of reports of leukaemia clusters. Even though assessments in the past have concluded that the environmental and radiological impact of the sites has been small, some public concern remained.

To try to abate these worries the AWE management decided it would fund a completely independent study which commenced in 1998 and produced three technical reports (Croudace et al. 1999, 2000b, 2002) and three lay leaflets.

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