Calls for radiation probe

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

AN INVESTIGATION into radioactive contamination at Manchester University must be carried out with urgency and has to come up with answers, a top lawyer said today.

Liz Graham, who represents the widow of Dr Hugh Wagner, one of two lecturers whose deaths is now being linked to groundbreaking nuclear physics experiments there a century ago, says the emphasis has to be on a comprehensive fact-finding inquiry.

Dr Wagner, who worked for years in the room where Ernest Rutherford carried out the pioneering work that led to the splitting of the atom, died last year from pancreatic cancer aged just 62. At the time he was diagnosed, he was said to have been a fit and healthy person.

A confidential report by university staff claims that his death, and that of colleague Dr John Clark who also died from cancer, could have been linked to radiation in the Rutherford Building, and sparked fears that literally hundreds of students and staff may have been exposed to the danger over a period of years.

Ms Graham said today that Dr Wagner's widow Rachel desperately wants accurate information to help her come to terms with her tragic loss. And she says she has already been contacted by a number of other people who are alarmed that they too could have been at risk.

Legal action against the university on the grounds of negligence is being considered, but the Manchester-based solicitor said: "Rachel's focus is on the fact-finding aspect of the inquiry. She is at the moment living with a situation where she doesn't really know what happened.

"The University has so far not carried out an independent inquiry and that is what is vitally needed. What is clear is that discoveries have been made over a period of time, sometimes almost by chance, and what Rachel wants are answers."

Nobel prize winner Rutherford carried out experiments in the building from 1906 using radon and polonium, similar to the material that killed Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko two years ago.

But Ms Graham says it is believed no systematic radiation monitoring of room 2.62 where both Rutherford and Dr Wagner both worked was carried out and, if so, records were not kept.

A trigger for the confidential report by university academics was when in February 2001 Dr John Churcher - one of the three authors of the document - found that the room, where he too had been working, had suddenly been labelled a radiation hazard zone.

Dr Churcher and colleagues in the Department of Psychology, which at the time occupied that part of the building, had earlier been asked to vacate it on a temporary basis for `renovation' purposes.

Ms Graham said: "They had not been told that the offices they had occupied for many years had been subject to a radiological survey and decontamination.

"Questions were asked and answers were sometimes challenged and they pursued their enquiries. The university sought to reassure them that there wasn't a problem and that makes it very difficult for people to have confidence that they are being kept fully in the picture.

Cutting edge
"Manchester University, and what became the Rutherford Building, were at the absolute cutting edge of research into nuclear physics. The university must have been aware of the enormous risk of working with radiation.

"They built a new physics department and the old laboratory became redundant for a number of years but it appears there was no systematic testing or recording of radiation present. All we know is that in the 1990s for some reason the university decided to start a proper survey, which caused alarm.

"By that time the building had been used by hundreds of people, including postgraduates, staff, and others engaged in research work.

"I am already experiencing a lot of contact from people whose partners or family members worked there, and it has raised very real anxieties that some loved ones' deaths may not have been due to natural causes.

"One of our concerns is that there may be no cause for alarm, which is why an investigation has to be truly independent and must be carried out urgently and comprehensively.

"If you have family, your worry is whether you yourself have been affected by working in the building, is something in your own house infected, and could others be affected?

"The only answer is a proper scientific investigation that will provide real answers. Manchester University is playing a part in the current `Big Bang' experiment aimed at probing the mysteries of the universe. It shouldn't be beyond them to get such an investigation under way as a matter of urgency."

Manchester University said today it had already made contact with an independent body with a view to its carrying out the investigation.

It says it `sees merit' in many of the recommendations made in the academics' report, but will not be taking any immediate action to contact former staff and students who have made use of the Rutherford Building over the years - a move that was recommended in the report.

A spokesman said: "We would only do that if the outcome is that there is thought to be significant concern." He added: "We are taking these issues very seriously, and we want to be as open and transparent as we can be."

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