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Friday, 16 February, 2001, 21:29 GMT
Museum fined over radioactive exhibits
Natural History Museum
HSE inspectors visited the museum
A top UK museum that exposed visitors and staff to radioactive materials has been given a 12-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay prosecution costs of 6,305.

The Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London, exposed members of the public and one member of staff to radioactive rocks in its geological exhibits.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive revealed the blunder and last December museum trustees admitted breaching health and safety laws.


We are not dealing with something as emotive as Chernobyl

Malcolm Fortune QC
Those in charge of the minerals gallery said they simply had no idea some of their exhibits should not have been on show to the public.

London Blackfriars Crown Court heard that the question of museum exhibits containing uranium and thorium had resulted in the removal of some 2,000 mineral specimens from public display as long ago as 1976.

Officials believed that had removed any risk that might have existed.

Indeed, visits by Health and Safety Executive representatives six years later, and again in 1987, raised no further concerns.

However, readings taken in early 1999 showed that all was not as it should be.

Safe storage

It also heard that a lone employee later spent five months transferring the offending items to safe storage.

Readings had shown some of the exhibits had a radiation level of 60 microsieverts - compared to the museum's benchmark figure of one.

Sentencing, Judge John Samuels QC said the case had to be seen in its "proper" context.

He said the museum had been independently advised that the maximum dose which a member of the public might have received from the minerals gallery "was on a worse case basis, no more than 45 microsieverts in any one calendar year".

That had to be seen against regulations which said that no-one should receive more than 5,000 microsieverts of radiation over a 12-month period from all sources.

Justice

That meant that, at most, the museum's minerals gallery would have been responsible for less than 1% of that figure.

It was also worth noting that a kilo of brazil nuts possessed 40 microsieverts while a similar amount of mussels had a reading of 60, the judge added.

"In my judgement, justice will be done if I impose a conditional discharge for one year," he said.

Malcolm Fortune QC, defending, told the court that those he represented wanted to make it clear that everything had been done to resolve the situation and there was absolutely no reason for any visitor or employee to be concerned.

"We accept the concerns of the Health and Safety Executive ... but the limits (of radiation) that members of the public may have been or were exposed to were low, but not as low as reasonably practicable.

"We are not dealing with something as emotive as Chernobyl."

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