Friday, 2 October 2009

Should we beware the east wind?

Extensive radioactive contamination has been uncovered on the London 2012 Olympic site at Stratford. OPEN has made an appeal for funds to meet the cost of commissioning an independent nuclear scientist to report on the working methods and risks arising from the excavation works there. OPEN has been passed copies of consultants reports, and replies from the authorities to information requests made by members of Games Moniter, which raise serious concerns. OPEN considers that local residents should be fully informed of the works being undertaken on the Olympic site. 
If you can assist with funding the independent scientist's report please contact

Historically the Olympic 2012 site housed east London's "dirty industries" - insecticide & fertiliser works, paint and oil distillers, gas mantel works - many of which are known to have produced radioactive and other toxic by-products. London University's decommissioned nuclear reactor was also on the site. Documentary evidence revealed that, prior to 1963 when regulation was first introduced by the Radioactive Substances Act 1960, there had been uncontrolled deposits of radioactive thorium at a burial site under the West Ham tip. The likelihood was that radium, and other toxic wastes, were also present. Local residents became concerned in 2007 when contractors began drilling on the Clays Lane housing estate, which had been built on the former tip, and measuring the drilling samples unearthed on the estate with geiger counters.

A contractor tests for radioactive contamination of soil unearthed during drilling on the Clays Lane housing estate

The authorities method of work was described at the time as "very crude" by a nuclear scientist but a local resident was refused legal aid to seek a Court injunction, to stop the excavations on the housing estate until he was rehoused. It was said that "the balance of convenience" was deemed to favour the authorities which would argue that "an injunction has the potential to stop in its tracks a project of national importance". The drilling contractors withdrew from the estate at the time when their activities became public knowledge . Residents were later rehoused during the demolition of the estate.

Clouds of dust, and a skip with unsealed bags of asbestos material, during demolition of the Clays Lane estate
OPEN has recently been passed consultant's reports, and replies to a series of Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) requests, which have confirmed that excavations have unearthed radiological contamination on the Olympic site which is far more widespread than the authorities had orginally anticipated. There have so far been finds in at least three of the construction zones quite apart from the thorium burial site which had initially been quarantined against excavation.
Questions have arisen as to the adequacy of the authorities' controls to prevent the potential contamination of site workers. Despite clear advice regarding the likely pollutants in old landfill sites the authorities lack of preparedness left them trying to trace material, after it had been excavated and moved to a different site, when the source was discovered to be contaminated with radioactiviy.

There are concerns also regarding the risks to local residents from contamination by airborne dust, created by the excavation of over 2.5 million cubic metres of material across the Olympic site.

The system for landscape clearance of the site generally involved diggers excavating the ground and loading it into dumper and tipper trucks. The material would then be trucked to a "waste sorting" site before being sent for crushing and stockpiling for reuse. By November 2007 consultants had identified that some of the material brought to the waste sorter was contaminated with radioactive substances including radium226, radioactive phosphatic rocks and "hot spots" of radiochemically contaminated soils.

In their report consultants commented that, prior to the machine sorting and "hand picking" of the materials excavated, a "temporary ad hoc arrangment " for gamma monitering had been provided. But
"when radioactive material began to turn up in quantity at the waste sorter it was decided to instal equipment designed for the job".
The authorities obtained initial approval from the Environment Agency (EA), after Radium+226 was discovered, to set aside and store radioactive materials for subsequent disposal, possibly to Cumbria or the nuclear site in Dorset. Additional approval became necessary when further sources of contamination were discovered. Although the EA certificate required the store to be marked with the word Radioactive it appears that the Health and Safety Executive have given permission for the sign to read "Heavily Contaminated Area" and not display the radioactive roundel.

A recognised pathway to contamination is by a person inhaling radioactive dust particles. Thorium is particularly hazardous. Dust suppression measures were theoretically in place, to meet the standard GLA construction site guidelines, but a random check in April 2008 identified that "wheelwashers on site are frequently not in operation.. making the problem more evident than necessary...improvements to sweepers and bowsers can be made...casual attitude towards speed limits on site, this leads to extra dust being generated.... no dust suppression on demolition and crushing [on one of the construction zones)...".

On the neigbouring Leabank Square housing estate residents have been complaining about dust from the Olympic site and said that they were literally eating airborne dust coating their bar-b-que food. The authorities were aware of the problem and began sending a dustweeping vehicle regularly to the estate. Nevertheless the Olympic Delivery Authority's (ODA)  has threatened a Leabank Square resident with legal proceedings unless accusations were removed from the Leabank Square blog that the authorities had failed to take measures to damp down dust on the construction site.
The Olympic site's planning permission included a condition which was designed "to ensure protection of human health and to avoid pollution of controlled waters". It required notification of unexpected contamination and for works to immediately cease until a method to deal with it was agreed. Nevertheless between 26rd June and 23rd September 2008 over 200 tonnes of material containing thorium and radium were excavated from 5 locations on the Olympic Stadium site and delivered by tipper lorries to another site. Notice of these discoveries was not given, and nor was approval sought for these works, until 10th November. Approval could therefore only be given retrospectively with the rider that there was "no opportunity to comment on the adequacy of the proposed measures prior to them being carried out".

EIR replies from the ODA have revealed that over 7,000 tonnes of material (contaminated not only with Thorium+232 and Radium+226 but also with Uranium+238 and Protactinium-231) have been re-buried in a specially constructed cell beneath a road bridge near Stratford Town Centre. ODA consultants advised that " the by-product of the chemical seperation of uranium from uranium ore. No evidence has been found of refined uranium." The authorities say that all this material is either "exempt" or "low-level" and "naturally occurring" radioactive material. However given that some of this material came from former tips or landfill it is likely to have been dumped following industrial processes rather than occurring there naturally.
More recently the ODA has written to an independant journalist and researcher refusing to disclose a consultant's report which advised the ODA of the radiological hazards encountered. The ODA claim the report is an exempt "internal communication" and that disclosure could "cause harm by misleading the public " because the infomation it contains has been "superseded".

Should we beware the east wind? In Corby it is alleged that residents as far away as 4 km were exposed to airborne contamination. Have similar risks arisen from the Olympic site? The evidence uncovered of the authorities working methods to date, and the lack of adequate independent oversight of its activities, do not currently inspire complete confidence. Given the clear public interest that this matter raises and the international scrutiny that London will be exposed to in 2012, OPEN is calling for donations towards the cost of a report by an independent nuclear scientist. It is expected that the ODA will want to cooperate fully with the investigation in the interests of transparency and public confidence.
If you can assist with funding the independent scientist's report please contact

All photos in this article are the copyright of Mike Wells