NUCLEAR CONTAMINATION IN READING: A VERY BRITISH COVER-UP

Corporate Watch continues to follow the case of radioactive contamination in Earley, Reading. In this issue, we expose the continuing corporate and governmental indifference and cover-up of the case, and the gross complacency of regulatory bodies. By Chris Grimshaw

The story centres on Mr Raymond Fox of Earley, Reading.[1] His old house at 337 Wokingham Road is situated immediately to the south of the south-east corner of a site that was once occupied by a Shell petrochemicals depot. When he moved into the property in 1988 the depot had been recently shut down. Later on he found that vegetables would not grow in the back garden and began to suspect some kind of pollution emanating from the site. In 1997 he discovered a drain running off the site and entered it via a manhole to take samples of the materials inside. Inside the drain he came into contact with an oily residue and rapidly became critically ill. He suffered agonising pains and would pass out for hours on end. He bled from his feet and anus and his hair began to fall out.

His doctors were unable to make a diagnosis or offer any treatment. It was only thanks to intensive detoxification treatment from a doctor in Germany that he is still alive today. The doctor, Josef Kees, made some extraordinary discoveries. Tissue samples revealed not only the presence of a host of petrochemicals and other toxins that might be expected at an oil depot, but also Uranium and Plutonium. Dr Kees made an exhaustive diagnosis and recommendations for ongoing treatments, but Fox's doctors in the UK have refused to carry them out.

In recent years Mr Fox's property has been tested by two independent scientists who have discovered unusually raised levels of Plutonium and other radioactive isotopes on the property. In spite of this the Environment Agency and DEFRA maintain an attitude of utter indifference and have refused to investigate the source of radioactive contamination. This remained a mystery until two years ago, when an eye witness was found. He is a medical physicist who used to visit the site on business during the 1960s and 70s. He said that there was an underground facility beneath the depot which housed, amongst other things, a small nuclear reactor. His story was reported in CW Newsletter 14.

Since that report only two mainstream media - Radio 4's “Document” and the Daily Telegraph - have reported on the case. Several other journalists expressed an interest then melted away without a word. “It sounds like a lot of work...very complicated”, said a journalist with one respected left-wing broadsheet.


Insider Knowledge

In the last year two more sources, both with extensive contacts inside the nuclear establishment, have come forward independently with information. Both sources spoke on condition of anonymity. They were able to confirm the presence of nuclear materials on the site. One source confirmed that a supposed railway-car fire at the site in 1986 was a deception. In fact it was the below-ground nuclear facility that caught fire. According to this source the facility burnt for a month or more before being put out by flooding the site with water from a nearby lake. This account tallies with local witnesses, who recall the ground shaking and a sheet of flame that shot up above the depot. According to this source, the decision to cover up the accident and the existence of the facility was taken by the government, which is liable to compensate all victims of radioactive contamination (private insurers will not insure against it).

Despite illness and bankruptcy, Ray Fox has made repeated attempts to seek justice through the courts, but with no success. The complexity of the legal process is immense, and cases have been thrown out on technicalities and sometimes on purely spurious grounds. He alleges that he is the victim of corruption and fraud within the legal system, as well as “corrupt and devious judges employed by the British government, joint owners of the Shell site”.

Dissatisfied with the UK courts, Mr Fox decided to take his case to Europe by filing a formal complaint with the European Commission. The EC wrote to the UK government, who responded that the contamination must be fallout from weapons testing in the 1950s. This theory is easily discountable as the isotope ratios simply do not match those found in fallout. Green MEP Caroline Lucas and nuclear physicist Chris Busby met with Stephen Kaiser, head of the EC's Environment Directirate, to help impress on him the seriousness of the case and encourage him to ask further questions. In response, DEFRA commissioned a report by Atkins Nuclear, a subsidiary of WS Atkins, a company that receives the majority of its contracts from the government. They submitted the report to the Commission in late 2003 but demanded that it be kept confidential. Not even Ray Fox was to be allowed to see it. Only after lengthy wrangling did DEFRA release copies to Mr Fox, Dr Busby and environmental consultant Dr Kartar Badsha. Corporate Watch has obtained its own copy.

The report, “Radiological Monitoring Near 337 Wokingham Road Earley Reading UK”, is a review of four previous studies of the site. Two of the studies were conducted by Dr Badsha on behalf of Royal Sun Alliance, Mr Fox's insurers, and one by Dr Busby, commissioned by Radio 4 for the “Document” programme. Both Badsha and Busby had reported raised levels of Plutonium (amongst other radioactive materials) and a long term threat to human health. Badsha had difficulty even getting samples analysed (see CW 14) but finally got them analysed at the Laboratory of the Government Chemist. Two of his samples showed relatively low levels of Plutonium - 1.5 and under 1 Bq/kg[2], but one sample from the garden soil indicated 54.9 Bq/kg. The rest of his and Busby's samples yielded values of between 3.5 and 11.5 Bq/kg in samples from the house, the garden and the drain. The highest previously recorded level of Plutonium found anywhere in Berkshire was 10 Bq/kg - by the fence around the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston.

A fourth study had been done by Harwell Scientifics, commissioned by the Environment Agency. Ray Fox had feared, at the time, that the company (a privatised spin off from the UKAEA) would fake its results. He offered them access to his property on the condition that he was allowed to have independent experts oversee their work and take their own samples from the same spots for independent testing. They refused to accept this condition and instead took samples from the neighbouring property and the road outside. The highest level of Plutonium they found was 0.23 Bq/kg. Strangely they took ten samples from the area but only tested six of them. In fact only one sample was tested from the garden next to the point on Fox's property where the highest levels were found.

Atkins Nuclear's report does not so much explain the raised levels of Plutonium as explain them away. It notes that Badsha's first samples are “anomalously high” but seems to see no significance in that. The report bases its conclusions on a questionable selection of Plutonium levels from another regional survey[3], apparently funded by the Atomic Weapons Establishment. By comparing samples from Fox's garden with readings from the Aldermaston and Burghfield areas and one highly anomalous “control” measurement from the Hungerford area (a range between 0.43 and 4.47 Bq/kg), it concludes that levels are “generally consistent with background measurements reported in the regional area”. The report does not address previous environmental surveys of the site which did not look for radioactive materials, nor Mr Fox's medical tests performed in Germany.

Chris Busby objected strenuously to the report. “It simply doesn't answer the important question,“ he said. The 10 Bq/kg sample taken at the fence of AWE Aldermaston is clearly pollution from the nuclear weapons factory. At a residential property in a built up area surely some explanation is required for levels up to 6 times higher.


A Wall of Silence

Corporate Watch phoned Atkins Nuclear to speak to Susan E. Russell, author of the report. We were told that she has left the company and failed to trace her. We tried to contact Dr Joe Toole who wrote Harwell Scientifics' report. He had left his company also, but we managed to track him down at Dounreay, the experimental (and highly dysfunctional) UKAEA facility in the far north of Scotland. He refused to answer questions on his report claiming that this would be “unprofessional”, an assertion he was unable to explain. He checked with the Environment Agency and said that we would have to speak to Phil Heaton who dealt with Mr Fox's case there. Mr Heaton said he would be happy to talk to us but that we would have to speak to the press department first, as a matter of “normal protocol”. The press department had other ideas, however, and we were unable to get any fresh perspectives from them.

Drawing a blank at the Environment Agency we tried DEFRA. Fiona Shand who has handled correspondence with Mr Fox refused to comment, saying she knew very little about the case. Chris Wilson, head of the department responsible, also refused to comment. The press department proved more unhelpful than any that this writer has ever tried to extract information from. The first press officer went off sick for two days after taking a question, and a second refused to answer other questions because they were being handled by the first who was not there. So far DEFRA has provided no answers to the following questions: how much did the Atkins Nuclear report cost? Given the elevated levels of Plutonium, why is DEFRA taking no action? Why did it turn down the European Commission's suggestion of “parallel” testing? How can it explain the presence of the Plutonium on the site and, if it can't, why is it not seeking the source?

The matter has also been picked up by the Green Party who have sent a letter to Nick Raynsford MP, Minister for Local and Regional Government. In the letter they demand full co-operation with the EC's investigation; a full and transparent investigation of the Earley site using ground radar and other equipment; removal of any remaining nuclear materials that may still be there beneath the ground; provision of medical care and compensation to victims; and a thorough investigation of the role of government departments and agencies in this matter. The letter was sent in early July - no reply has been received yet.

We cannot know how much of this institutional indifference is conspiracy and how much is sheer complacency. But we can safely assume that somewhere inside the Shell corporation, and somewhere in the government, there are people who know exactly how radioactive materials found their way onto Mr Fox's property.


References
[1] For previous coverage see “Who Poisoned Raymond Fox?”, CW Magazine #8, Sep. 1999; “Missing Plutonium found...”, CW Newsletter 11, Dec/Jan 2001/2; “Shell Shocker”, Newsletter 14, Apr/May 2002; “Very General Atomic”, Newsletter 16, Dec 2003)

[2] Bq/kg stands for “Becquerel per kilogram” - the standard unit for measuring radioactive presence. 1 Bq/kg equals one “disintegration” or nuclear transformation per second in a kilogram of matter. The measurements cited are still above regional background levels of 0.02 – 0.7 Bq/kg established by scientists Cawse and Horrill in their 1977 survey.

[3] The study is referenced as “AWE sites in Berkshire, Report No.3, Southampton Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton” and attributed to Ian Croudace. The Oceanography Centre's web site lists similarly named reports, numbered 1 and 2, but not 3. The only reference to a Report No. 3 that could be found was on the web site of the Southern England Radiation Monitoring Group, which notes that reports 1, 2 and 3 were funded by the AWE. See www.soton.ac.uk and www.sermg.org
 
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