LLRC Journal Radioactive Times. Vol.5 No 1

Radioactive Times. Vol.5 No 1

A Reactor at the Bottom of the Garden

Strange goings on in Reading

Ray Fox lives in Earley, near Reading, Berkshire. In the mid 1990s he dug up a drain at the bottom of his garden to clear a blockage which was flooding his garden. The land drain crossing the corner of his property was blocked with some tarry black material which Ray cleared away. Shortly after this he became seriously ill. His body became covered in what appeared to be burns and blisters. The symptoms appeared to be those of radiation poisoning. Thus began several years of struggle to obtain an explanation for his illness and its origin, a struggle that has slowly revealed elements of a most extraordinary cover-up - a secret underground atomic research site operated in Reading in the 1960s by the Shell Oil Company as part of a research effort into the development of atom bombs. Parts of the story have been revealed in newspaper articles and on television, but LLRC has been advising Ray Fox from the beginning and has visited the site on two occasions and made radiation measurements in an attempt to get to the bottom of one of the most strange and unbelievable stories ever heard. On 25th Nov. 2002 Chris Busby and Caroline Lucas MEP, together with a friend of Ray Fox (who is now too sick to travel) had a meeting in Brussels with Stephen Kaiser of the EU Radiation Protection unit to demand that they investigate the situation. RaT brings its readers inside the story.

The facts of the case

Following his contamination and illness, Ray discovered that the drain he had unblocked was an illegal connection to the public land drain to the River Loddon and was apparently draining material from a Shell ‘oil depot’ at Earley, which had existed on a site at the bottom of his garden until the 1980s. After the closure of the depot, the land remained derelict until acquired by a developer in the late 1990s when it was ‘remediated’ by removing a metre of topsoil and replacing it with fresh topsoil. A new housing estate was built on the site and people now live there.

There is no doubt about Ray Fox’s illness. It began with an array of sickness or poisoning symptoms and has progressed seriously; Ray is now a very sick man. He has had urine analysis done in Germany where slightly increased levels of Uranium and Plutonium were detected. These reinforced the suggestion that it was radioactive contamination of the drain that was the origin of the problem.

Following Ray’s complaint about the drain and his illness, Shell immediately arranged for contractors to visit the property and dig up the drain, water jet the remaining sewer and close the system up, replacing all the material they removed with fresh soil.

Chris Busby has used LLRC’s portable gamma spectrometer to make radiation measurements of Ray’s house and garden as part of the Mark Thomas investigation on Channel 4 TV. Beta and alpha scintillation counting showed very slightly raised levels and there were slightly elevated levels of radiation, mainly gamma signals from natural Thorium 234. The house itself had slightly high levels of radiation, particularly the lower blockwork in some rooms, but none were high enough to be considered a health risk in themselves. Samples were taken on behalf of Ray’s insurance company and sent by their advisor, Dr Karta Badsha, to be analysed by LGC in Teddington. Results showed the presence of various evil organic chemicals and heavy metals, as would be expected from groundwater near an oil depot, but there were also some very interesting radiochemical results. These are shown in Table 1.

Isotope First series, house dust (Bq/Kg) Second series, garden soil (Bq/Kg)
Plutonium 239+240 54.9 9.8
Plutonium 238 18 10
Uranium 238 18 10
Uranium 235 4.7 2.6
Americium 241 not measured 6.3

Table 1. Activity of some alpha emitting isotopes found in Ray Fox’s garden and house. Normal values for Plutonium 239+240 should be about 0.02-0.7Bq/kg

Plutonium and Uranium

The first thing to note is that the level of Plutonium 239+240 is very high. In the Cawse and Horrill grassland survey of 1977, mean levels in the area were between 0.02 and 0.7 Becquerels per Kilogram (Bq/kg). Since then sea-to-land transfer from the contaminated Irish Sea has increased the levels but in a survey carried out by Southampton University in 1997 the mean level in the Berkshire rural zone was 0.85 Bq/kg and the highest measurement made, 10Bq/kg, was at the perimeter fence of the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston. On this basis, the Plutonium levels in Ray’s house were up to 60 times higher than would be expected.

The Plutonium-238 levels were far too high to be explained on the basis of weapons test fallout, and the ratio of Pu-238 to Pu239 was also too high. The weapons fallout activity ratio for Pu239+240/Pu238 is between 13:1 and 28:1 but the Ray Fox samples were showing ratios of between 1:1 and 3:1. Pu-238 is produced by neutron irradiation of U-238 in a nuclear reactor and so high levels of Pu-238 suggest the presence of a reactor.

What clinches the argument that there has been contamination from a reactor or fissionable nuclear bomb material is the ratio of Uranium-238 to Uranium-235. Although the absolute levels are not high, this ratio is an unmistakable fingerprint for material from a reactor or a bomb core. It is enriched Uranium that is in Ray Fox’s house. The normal primordial Uranium ratio is 137.88. Of the 516 samples analysed in the 1997 Newbury/Greenham Common survey by Ian Croudace of Southampton University all except samples from close to Aldermaston gave values between 137.36 and 138.40. Of the 68 samples taken from near Aldermaston there were only 11 samples outside this range and only one with a ratio as low as 98.03. The ratios in the samples from Fox’s house are given in table 2. They show that the U238/235 ratio is uniformly 24.5 and that therefore there is contamination from one source which must be a nuclear reactor or the fissile core of an unexploded atom bomb.

Sample U-238 Bq/Kg U-238 ppm U-235 Bq/Kg U-235 ppm Ratio 238/235
house dust 18 1.45 4.7 0.059 24.5
soil 10 0.807 2.6 0.033 24.45

Table 2. Uranium ratios from Ray Fox’s house and garden at Wokingham Rd, Earley, Reading showing presence of enriched Uranium from a nuclear reactor or bomb.

Other evidence

In the course of investigating this strange story, we have now found that there was indeed an experimental nuclear reactor beneath the ground at the Earley depot. It was visited by Dr David Greenwood who worked at University College London and who recently came to Wales to talk with Chris Busby and others interested in the case. Dr Greenwood has sent an affidavit to the European Commission describing the underground laboratory. The reactor was a graphite moderated reactor of about 30 feet diameter buried several metres deep. It was used for nuclear research in connection with the Manhattan Project and later nuclear developments. Greenwood named several eminent scientists who knew of the existence of the reactor, including Prof David Bohm, the Nobel laureate. He explained that the radioactive contamination which was being produced by the research there was affecting the special oils he went there to obtain for his high vacuum mass spectrometry research.

Major accident and cover-up

The Earley site was used to move solvents by rail and there was a railway siding there. In 1987 there was a fire and an explosion which was recorded locally as a minor railway accident involving a diesel spillage. However, local people reported that the earth shook and that manhole covers blew off. The fire brigade was called and the incident closed. After this the site was abandoned. Topsoil was removed, a metre of new soil was laid and the site was sold for housing development in the 1990s. The evidence suggests that the reactor is still there and is leaking and contaminating the local area.

LLRC will continue to follow the case and advise the Green MEP Dr Caroline Lucas who is pressing the European Commission to conduct a major investigation under Euratom legislation to find the lost reactor and make it safe.

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