Radiation alert over waste at Felixstowe

NUCLEAR experts and government officials were today in the middle of a full-scale enquiry after a bungle at Felixstowe allowed radioactive material to go on a 70-mile rail trip through Suffolk and Essex.

By Paul Geater

NUCLEAR experts and government officials were today in the middle of a full-scale enquiry after a bungle at Felixstowe allowed radioactive material to go on a 70-mile rail trip through Suffolk and Essex.

At one stage, anti-terrorist forces feared radioactive waste to create a so-called "dirty bomb" was being brought into Britain in a container through the port.

But when the material was finally examined, it was found to be a small bolt that had somehow been contaminated and was no danger.

Now councils in the area are to be asked to seek assurances from the government and port bosses that procedures will tightened to ensure there is no repetition of the incident.

The radioactivity was detected by equipment introduced earlier this year to spot material which could be smuggled in by terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.

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However a breakdown in communication between various agencies meant that the potentially dangerous cargo was not examined until it reached the end of its journey – Tilbury in Essex – after travelling through Ipswich, Colchester, and Chelmsford.

A Home Office spokesman today confirmed that the incident took place on August 1, and the material was eventually dealt with by officials from the Health and Safety Executive.

"At no time was anyone in any danger at all, this was made safe quickly and dealt with by the appropriate people," he said.

However the material should have been dealt with before it left the port of Felixstowe – and for some time on August 1 there was confusion about where it was.

Initial reports suggested that the container was on a lorry – but in fact it was on a Freightliner train heading away from the port.

"We are reviewing our procedures in the light of this incident," said the Home Office spokesman.

When proposals to install monitoring equipment at Felixstowe port were first revealed in the wake of the attacks on America last year, Customs and Excise officers based at their London headquarters were leading the proposal.

Major ports throughout Britain are taking part in a trial with this equipment – which can be moved to different sites.

It is unclear how the bolt, which is understood to have measured 15mm by 8mm, had become contaminated with radioactivity.

It was part of a container load of scrap being sent from Sierra Leone in West Africa to a scrap dealer at Rainham in Essex.

Felixstowe councillor Dennis Carpenter – a member of the town and district council – was very concerned to hear about the incident.

"Because of the danger from terrorists using "dirty bombs" it is very important that when unauthorised nuclear material is discovered coming through the docks that it is intercepted straight away," he said.

"In this case it seems to have been allowed to travel 70 miles through Suffolk and Essex before any action was taken.

"We must find out what went wrong in this case.

"Fortunately, this time it appears to have been a radioactive bolt which accidentally got mixed up with some scrap metal. But it could have a very dangerous situation where nuclear material was being imported for a dirty bomb that could have put many lives at risk.

"I will be asking Suffolk Coastal District Council and Felixstowe Town Council to take this issue up with the Home Office and Felixstowe Dock to avoid a repetition of this very serious incident."

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