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Radioactive rooms at the University of Manchester

John Nuttall takes a personal view of the radiation deaths

Published on September 16th 2008.


Radioactive rooms at the University of Manchester

Last week reports emerged of suspicions that two ex-University of Manchester lecturers who had both died from cancer were exposed to radiation from working in rooms previously used to store radioactive materials by nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford.

As late as 2002, radon contamination levels were found to be over the safe level.

I was well aware of Rutherford’s experiments in the first half of the last century, as Sir John Cockroft, who was a former pupil of my old school, Todmorden Grammar, had been awarded a Nobel Prize for his part in them. However, it had never occurred to me that there might be any radiation left over from those days in the university premises.

It immediately made me think of the early death at 47 of Dr Chris Evans who I knew in the early seventies. Chris was a psychologist, computer scientist, author and broadcaster. He was probably best known by the general public from the time that he conducted tests on Uri Geller.

Chris worked at the National Physical Laboratory from a room previously used to store radioactive materials. When he died in 1979 there was a strong suspicion that exposure to high levels of background radiation had led to his early demise.

It came as something of a shock to find that the two Manchester lecturers were also psychologists that I knew well. Both Dr John Clark and Dr Hugh Wagner worked in rooms in the Rutherford Building that had been taken over by the Department of Psychology. John Clark died in 1992 of a brain tumour and Hugh Wagner in 1997 from pancreatic cancer.

Three alarmed psychologists from the University of Manchester who themselves worked in rooms in the Rutherford Building have produced a 294-page report which examines the history of the building. In their report, they claim to have found a university document dating back to 1999 that states that four rooms in the building, including Hugh Wagner’s office, were contaminated with radiation.

According to the report, university minutes from the mid-1970s allude to the reluctance of security staff to enter Rutherford’s former rooms as four of their colleagues had died around that period. The university said they had no record of this.

The report says that as late as 2002, radon contamination levels there were found to be over the safe level.

All of this is deeply disturbing to those of us who spent years in those rooms. Despite the obvious facts that the report was written by psychologists rather than physicists, and that for people of John and Hugh's ages, cancer is far from unusual, it still leaves an inescapable, uneasy feeling. The university has a radiation expert who will speak to any worried staff or students who spent time in Rutherford's old rooms.

The university commented: “The University has been sent a copy of the Report on 'Possible health risks due to ionising radiation in the Rutherford Building, formerly Coupland Building One, at The University of Manchester' produced by John Churcher, Don O'Boyle and Neil Todd.

“The University sees merit in many of the recommendations contained in the Report and accepts the case for a Review independent of The University of Manchester. We have identified and will shortly begin detailed negotiations with the outside experts who will conduct that Independent Review.

“The University is also actively engaging with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and other experts to review the building's history and occupancy.”

Whatever the truth, these revelations seem particularly apposite at a time when the nuclear debate is once again rearing its head due to proposals to plug Britain's energy gap by building a new generation of nuclear power stations. On the one side stand opponents of nuclear plants who will point to clusters of leukaemia near previous nuclear establishments, while on the pro-nuclear side these concerns will be dismissed as either wrong or outdated.

For my own part when I hear these arguments in the nuclear debate, I just think about my three dead friends.

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AnonymousSeptember 16th 2008.

I was a student 69-72 in Psych dept and knew all personnel who have died. The labs were used by undergrads and staff alike. Several more staff have 'gone' but then again their age might be critical... However it's making me wonder.

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