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The Observer, 1 June, 1990

Lockerbie fears over missing uranium
by Robert McNeil

Mystery surrounds the precise number of depleted uranium
counterweights missing from the Lockerbie disaster Boeing 747,
after police first told Edinburgh radiation experts that one-and-
a-half were missing and then amended the figure to two.

The issue has aroused serious concern because of fears that a
missing half may have been burnt in the conflagration, creating
conditions for a massive leak of radiation. Local authorities and
a leading radation consultant are calling for the matter to be

Dr Bob Wheaton, of Edinburgh Radiation Consultants, first wrote to
Dumfries and Galloway Police last year and was told that one-and-
a-half counterweights were missing. This aroused his concern, as
an American phycicist, Dr Robert Parker, had claimed in Nature
magazine of 22 December 1988 (the very week, ironically, of the
disaster) that 'about 250.000 people, at worst, could be put at
risk from the 1,000 lb of depleted uranium in a Boeing 747.'

Dr Parker claimed that the civilian use of depleted uranium could
be hazardous. 'Uranium, depleted or not, is chemically toxic,' he
said. 'In aircraft, depleted uranium is only a hazard in the event
of high-temperature fires that can arise after a crash. It is the
release of airborne and respirable oxide particles from such fires
that presents a hazard.

Dr Wheaton, while keeping an open mind on Dr Parker's figures and
conclusions, believes nonetheless that there could be a risk,
particularly if half a counterweight had been destroyed in high-
intensity flames. He wrote again to Dumfries and Galloway Police
and received the following reply, dated 19 March, from Chief
Constable George Esson: 'I must apologise for giving you
inaccurate information in my letter of 1 November 1989. This was
due to me being wrongly informed that 18.5 counterweights had been
recovered when the correct figure is 18 counterweights.'

Asked by Observer Scotland to clarify the situation, a Lockerbie
police spokesman said: 'The chief constable initially was in
receipt of misinfomation and that's why he put it out as 18.5
recovered. He then had a full look at the situation and discovered
that the proper figure was two missing and 18 recovered.' Asked
where the misinformation came from, the spokesman said he could
only go by the correspondence with Dr Wheaton 'and that it was

This weekend, Dr Wheaton said: 'We are interested in discovering
whether or not these counterweights had been exposed to high
temperatures, which is the crux of the matter. But when they
discovered that we wanted to see the half they suddenly decided
that there wasn't a half after all. I wouldn't say it was
deliberate but it seems almost like a delaying tactic - I only got
a letter back after months.'

Dr Wheaton, who stesses that the missing counterweights were as
likely buries as burned, also contacted Boeing in Seattle and they
assured him that the Nasa-tested counterweights were completely


The Standing Conference of Local Authorities in the Forth Estuary,
to which Dr Wheaton is consultant and which is concerned about
aircraft movements in and out of Turnhouse, has urged him to
continue his inquiries.

BNF was unable to give a figure for the number of counterweights
held at Preston when contacted yesterday. A spokesman added that
the counterweights had been tangled up with metal and debris when
they arrived. However, he cast strong doubts on the risk
calculation by Parker and said he could not recall seeing signs of
burning on the counterweights.

Dr Wheaton accepts that radiation testing in the Lockerbie area
after the disaster found no cause of alarm. However, he calims
that the water sampling method used 'would be the one least likely
to show up anything.' He said a better method would have been
sediments sampling from the bottom of the same bodies of water
that were tested.

'The uranium oxide created would be quite a dense material and if
it did settle on to the water it would almost certainly drop
straight to the bottom. This is the principle that Sellafield used
for the discharge of uranium and plutonium into the Irish Sea. So
we would expect a similar thing to happen in this case.'
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