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Dalgety Bay

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Dalgety Bay lies on the north shore of the Firth of Forth, between Inverkeithing and Aberdour on the Fife coast.

The name of Dalgety Bay applies to both an actual inlet bay on the coast, and the town which has developed to the west and northwest of the bay.

From a small settlement, the area is said to have developed from 1962 onward, and been founded by the 20th Earl of Moray on land belonging to the former Donibristle Estate. It has been described as the first private development of a new town in Scotland, and was followed by the opening of the Forth Road Bridge in 1964,

Part of the estate was developed as an aerodrome during World War I, and was used by both the Royal Navy and RAF, and subsequently reactivated for World War II as HMS Merlin.

Donibristle Industrial Park was developed over the runway of the former air base, and evidence of the runway can still be found with the estate, and near the local tennis courts, where the apron associated with aircraft repair and salvage operations carried out at the base was located.


Dalgety Bay was the location of a designated Z-Berth, however this facility has been classed as inactive for some years.

Contaminated area

Public notice, 2008
Public notice
© Richard Webb

The use of radium in luminous paint, probably manufactured by Luminisers Ltd, for aircraft instruments has led to claims of a continuing Realistic hazard to public health, according to a Government report from 2006.

A survey by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) found about 1,000 radioactive items in the area of Dalgety Bay. It referred to this as far more than the number found at Sandside Beach near Dounreay, and 50 times higher than normal, however, it is probably necessary to read the further hazard analysis to discover which of the two actually carries the greater risk, as the nature and probability of coming into contact with, and retaining the hazardous material is highly significant.

First reported in 1990, official enquiries resulted in a clean up operation of the area, with material being collected and removed for storage in the naval dockyard at Rosyth for some years thereafter. Although the area was cleared at the time, later surveys have reported the existence of similar contamination in the area.

The source of the contamination has been attributed to waste dumped from HMS Merlin, the naval air station which formerly occupied the area, and which was closed in 1959. During World War II, the station was tasked with carrying out maintenance of aircraft, and this involved service and repair operation of the aircraft instrumentation, and many of the cockpit instrument dial markings were coated with luminous paint containing radium, which is radioactive. Following the end of the war, many surplus aircraft were scrapped at HMS Merlin, and incinerated with other rubbish. The waste was ultimately disposed of as landfill, and used to form a headland at Dalgety Bay.

The subsequent re-appearance of radioactive material in the area resulted in the return of SEPA, and the completion of a further survey to determine the extent of the contamination, determine the level of any associated risk, and recommend preventive actions. The MoD was asked for assistance to clear the contamination, but report that they have been refused, with the MoD pointing out that the site has not been a defence site since the middle of the 1960s, and that no conclusive results regarding the source of the contamination have been presented in any of the investigation completed so far.

Fife Council, the Scottish Executive and NHS Fife have stressed that the risks are low, but the warns that the radiation level may be high enough to carry a risk of skin burns and cancer. As access to the bay and beach is unrestricted, they advise visitors to wash their hands if they handle any material from the beach.

The reason the overall risk is rated as low arises from the fact the background radiation level in the area falls within the generally accepted level for this parameter, however, the risk associated with being in contact, particularly prolonged contact, with a particle from the area is high, however the risk analysis also shows that the chances of this are low, and visitors to the beach are more likely to become ill from coming into contact other hazardous waste such as sewage, and this is the reason for advising hand washing.

According to government advisers, people who come into prolonged contact with the contamination could receive doses of radiation in breach of official safety limits, with the risk of skin burns and, at worst, an increased risk of cancer. Ingesting the material by swallowing or breathing in could carry a significantly increased risk. Again, the actual risk of this happening is low.

The area was included in a list of sites said to be contaminated by radium:

  • Dalgety Bay, Fife: A stretch of the shoreline around the Dalgety Bay Sailing Club is contaminated with radium dumped after the closure of a nearby Royal Navy air base at Donibristle
  • Forthside, Stirling: Vacant land near the railway station has been contaminated with radium from an old army luminising depot
  • Balloch, Dunbartonshire: A site now used as a boat yard was contaminated by MacArthur's Loch Lomond Radium Works, which closed in 1928
  • Wishaw, Lanarkshire: Land next to Castlehill Primary School was contaminated by a radium plant run by Smith's Industries
  • Carlisle, Cumbria: An RAF base suffered widespread contamination from radium that had been incinerated and dumped

Source: Deadly Sunshine: The History and Fatal Legacy of Radium. David Harvie. Tempus, 2005. (David Harvie is a British political activist).

MoD ceases radiation monitoring in 2010

At the end of September 2010, representative of Defence Estates informed a meeting of the specially established Dalgety Bay Forum that they had no plans to continue monitoring and removing contamination from the site. The meeting agreed that further monitoring was necessary, but came to no agreement about how it should be achieved.

SEPA has recently been given new legal powers under the 2007 Radioactive Contaminated Land Regulations and is now considering whether to use them to force the MoD to carry on clean-up operations. "SEPA will be writing to Defence Estates, asking that consideration is given to continuing the programme of monitoring and recovery at Dalgety Bay," said Dale. "SEPA will also be undertaking further work on the particles recovered, to determine their mass, dimensions and activity, which could take up to six months."
- Visitors at risk as MoD stops radiation monitoring at resort - Herald Scotland.[1]

Radioactive source discovered in 2011

In October 2011, during work being carried out to trace the source of radiation on the beach, material described as a "lump of contaminated metal" was discovered and removed for testing. It was reported to be ten times more radioactive than any material which had previously been found on the beach. On Wednesday, October October 12, 2011, Fife Council closed an area of the foreshore and erected additional temporary warning signs.[2][3]

On October 16, 2011, STV carried an online story which appeared add little to the story, but seemed to have been written to raise concerns. While the headline claimed scientist 'refused' to analyse samples, the story reported only that they were 'not particularly keen to work with these samples due to concerns over dose rates from high-activity samples'. Since no-one involved with such work would handle such material if they did not have the appropriate handling methods or equipment available, the scientists were merely follwing normal safety procedures for hazardous material, and the tone of the article appears sensational. The article was not clearly written, as it not immediately apparent whether this so-called refusal related to the current samples, or less radioactive samples mentioned in 2009.[4]

Management plan announced 2014

After many years of debate, a management plan was announced between SEPA and the MoD to deal with the contamination on the beach and surrounding area:

A management plan for a polluted Fife bay in Gordon Brown's constituency should be in place by the summer.

A timetable for dealing with Dalgety Bay had now been agreed between the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the Ministry of Defence.


In the latest written answer, Defence Minister Andrew Murrison, said: "I will write to you shortly with the detail of the timelines for the further scientific risk assessment and other work necessary to identify an appropriate long-term solution at Dalgety Bay. This timetable has been agreed between Sepa and the MoD and should result in identification of the preferred management option for the site by summer 2014. Once work on identifying the most appropriate long-term management option has concluded, we expect to play an active part in supporting SEPA in their engagement with wider stakeholders, including the Dalgety Bay Forum, to discuss the practicalities of implementation."

SEPA's report into the contamination, which was published last year, said the MoD had routinely incinerated and disposed of aircraft dials in the bay before the town was developed. The dials had been illuminated by paint containing radium-226.

The aircraft had been stationed at the nearby HMS Merlin airfield, which was commissioned in 1939 as a Royal Naval Aircraft Repair Yard and decommissioned in 1959 before being sold off in the 1960s.

- Dalgety Bay radiation: Management plan by the summer.[5]

Beach clean up to begin in 2020

A clean-up operation to deal with radioactive contamination on the beach at Dalgety Bay in Fife will get under way next year.

The stretch of coastline affected is contaminated with radium from scrapped aircraft instrument panels.

The MoD had previously said it expected the long-running saga to be resolved by the end of 2018.

But the project to remove the hazardous radium is now expected to start in April next year.

The scheme will not be completed until September 2021 as there are restrictions on when work can take place due to the potential disturbance to wintering birds.[6]


1 Visitors at risk as MoD stops radiation monitoring at resort - Herald Scotland | News | Transport & Environment Retrieved October 3, 2010.

2 BBC News - Highly radioactive metal found at Dalgety Bay in Fife Retrieved October 17, 2011.

3 Beach cordoned off after high levels of radiation found | Edinburgh and East | STV News Retrieved October 17, 2011.

4 Scientists 'refused to analyse Dalgety Bay radiation' | Edinburgh and East | STV News Retrieved October 17, 2011.

5 Dalgety Bay radiation: Management plan by the summer Retrieved 07/02/2014.

6 Work to clean up a radioactive beach to start next year Retrieved 30 April 2019

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