Cambridge faces fine for missing radioactive stock

May 7, 1999

Cambridge University is being prosecuted for the loss of a radioactive package. It could face an unlimited fine if found guilty.

The Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency confirmed last week that they are jointly prosecuting Cambridge for alleged breaches of three acts of parliament on separate counts.

The breaches encompass health and safety and environment legislation. The university will appear before local magistrates in June.

The university has been under investigation by the HSE and the EA following the loss of a radioactive source from its biochemistry department.

The HSE alleges that Cambridge contravened the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, by failing to ensure safe systems for the delivery and storage of radioactive sources, and breached the Ionising Radiations Regulations 1985 on five counts.

It is alleged that the university failed to ensure employees had received proper information and training to meet legal requirements and had not kept departmental records of the quantity and location of radioactive materials.

In a separate summons, the EA alleged breaches of the Radioactive Substances Act 1993. The EA said that the loss of the radioactive source constitutes a breach of the Regulation Certificate, issued to the university by the EA.

Cambridge University secretary general David Livesey said the university views the incident very seriously "and the appropriate reviews of systems, procedures and disciplinary matters have been instituted".

He said that the material - a radioactive phosphorus used in DNA research - was unlikely to have left the building and, if it had, the risk of ill effects to the public was "extremely remote", according to independent experts.

"This was an isolated lapse, due to human error, in hitherto effective safety procedures for the secure management of radioactive material by a department with a world-class research group," said Dr Livesey.

The incident represents at least the fifth serious breach of safety procedures. In 1997, the EA issued an enforcement notice after a radioactive substance was discovered that the university was not licensed to hold. In 1995, stocks of deadly anthrax bacteria were destroyed when the HSE discovered substandard facilities.

The maximum penalty that can be imposed by a magistrates' court for a breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act is Pounds 20,000, with Pounds 5,000 for each of the other offences. But if the matter is referred to Crown Court, the fine per offence could be unlimited.

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