Swiss watch botch: Dumped radioactive pollution concealed for 18 months
An old dump in the canton of Bern, near the town of Bienne with 50,000 inhabitants turned out to be a radioactive waste repository site, storing some 120kg of highly radioactive radium-based paint, once used by the watch-making industry to illuminate the watch faces’ numbers and clock hands, AFP reported.
But the use of radium, a popular gamma radiation source for many purposes, was banned back in 1963 precisely because of its radioactive nature. One company evidently failed to find a better way to properly dispose of its paint deposits than to leave them at an ordinary waste site.
The containers of radioactive paint had probably been rusting at the forgotten dump site for half a century until construction workers laying a road found them and called the local authorities.
“One hundred and twenty kilograms of radioactive waste was obtained after sorting. We measured doses of several hundred microsieverts at the source,” a spokesman for the Swiss federal office for public health (OFSP), Daniel Dauwalder, told Le Matin Dimanche weekly.
The official specified that in certain places of the dump, radioactivity measurements showed up to 300 microsieverts per hour, which is over 100 times more than the permitted amount for an old dump, newspapers reported. Three hours spent at this dump would mean an entire year’s worth of maximum radiation exposure.
The OFSP estimated risk to public health as ‘weak’ and opted not to inform locals about the finding so as “not to scare” them.
The blame game between Swiss public health and local municipal authorities continued for 18 months, with both sides claiming it was the opponent’s responsibility to inform the citizens.
In the year-and-a-half since the find, the authorities have not bothered to perform water quality tests on nearby water sources, but intend to do so “next week,” SonntagsZeitung weekly reported.
The president of the federal commission in charge of monitoring radiation (CPR) Francois Bochud told Le Matin Dimanche weekly that all authorities made a “mistake.”
“This will all come back to bite us and it is much more difficult to stay credible and win back the public's trust,” he said.