Weak spots in proposals on radioactively contaminated land

Proposals for a new regime to deal with radioactively contaminated land were set out in a consultation paper by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on 26 February.1 Its most controversial features are a proposal to apply less stringent dose limits than normal for protecting people occupying radioactively polluted sites, and a risk-based regime for water pollution which is weaker than that for non-radioactively contaminated sites.

The proposals are modelled broadly on the regime for identifying and apportioning liability for remediation of non-radioactively contaminated sites provided for by the Environment Act 1995. This is still not in force, and the Government announced in December that a decision when to implement it will be made after the comprehensive spending review is completed in the summer. The earliest likely implementation date is April 1999 (ENDS Report 276, pp 30-32 ).

The consultation paper says that "comparatively few" sites are contaminated with radioactivity. Historical sources include the phosphate industry, manufacture of gas mantles, gas works which used uranium catalysts, and processing of ores to recover rare earths.

More recent sources include the military and civil nuclear programmes. Sites subject to nuclear licensing will be exempt from the new controls because they cannot be de-licensed until they no longer pose a radioactive hazard. However, non-nuclear Ministry of Defence sites will be subject to the controls.

The proposed regime will be founded on the "suitable for use" philosophy, which requires regulatory action only if contamination poses unacceptable risks in relation to the current use of the land and the surrounding environment. Radioactive contamination which might give rise to hazards if a new use was introduced would be addressed under the planning and building control systems.

One of the main differences between the proposed regime and the 1995 Act's provisions is that the environment agencies are proposed as the lead bodies under the former. They would be responsible for identifying radioactively contaminated sites and securing their investigation and remediation as necessary. Only where a site was contaminated with both radioactive and non-radioactive pollutants and the latter posed the more important hazards would local authorities be responsible for dealing with radioactive contamination, and then only in accordance with advice from the agencies.

Another difference between the two systems is in the DETR's proposals for cost recovery. It suggests that the environment agencies should be able to recover their full site investigation costs from landowners, as well as the costs they incur in overseeing site investigations by others and remediation works.

Probably the most controversial proposal in the paper concerns the remediation standards for radioactively contaminated sites. The paper is not specific on the point, but suggests that existing radioactive dose limits to members of the public "might be too restrictive" on occupied sites where decontamination "could involve considerable disturbance to people's lives."

The paper goes on to note that the official action level at which householders are advised to take remedial measures against natural sources of radon gas is roughly ten times the primary EC dose limit to members of the public. It does not propose directly that this should be used as the basis of decisions on when radioactively contaminated land would be deemed "suitable for use", but invites views on the appropriate dose limit and "on the circumstances in which such a level might be varied."

A second point on which the proposals appear to be weaker than the regime for non-radioactively contaminated land is water pollution. Under the latter, land is regarded as "contaminated" if substances present in, on or under it are causing, or are likely to cause, pollution of controlled waters. The pollution does not have to be "significant" or to be causing risks to any particular receptor for land to be classed as contaminated.

However, the DETR has proposed that radioactively contaminated land which was polluting or likely to pollute water should be classed as "contaminated" only if the water pollution was causing a risk - of an unspecified level - to a critical group.

The paper adds that specific risk criteria will if necessary be set out in guidance to the environment agencies. Otherwise, the new regime will be similar to that under the 1995 Act.

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