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'No risk' from Biel's radioactive waste dump

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'No risk' from Biel's radioactive waste dump
Construction work on the A5 motorway near Biel. Photo: A5-Biel-Bienne.ch
10:36 CEST+02:00
Officials from the federal government, the canton of Bern and the city of Biel are minimizing the health risk from a radioactive waste dump kept secret for 18 months.

Representatives from the three levels of government held a press conference on Monday in a bid reassure the public after revelations in Swiss media a day earlier about 120 kilograms of radium deposits discovered during construction for the A5 motorway bypass.

The radioactive substance, emitting in some places radiation 100 times the permitted amount, was part of a waste from paint used by the watch-making industry to illuminate numbers on watches.

The population was not informed of the discovery earlier because officials did not want to alarm the population.

But on Monday, Roland Charrière, deputy director of the federal office of public health, acknowledged “we should have informed (the public) faster”, the ATS news agency reported.

The lack of communication “did not assure people and does not respond to their expectations”, Biel Mayor Erich Fehr admitted.

“All the players must put themselves at the table to show transparency.”

The radioactive waste was discovered in November 2012 at the roadworks, part of a 2.9-billion-franc bypass involving tunnels, in the centre of Biel.

The three levels of government, who had earlier pointed fingers at each other over the the lack of information given to the public, put on a united front at Monday’s press conference.

“We are going to work together,” Biel municipal councillor Barbara Schwickert said, according to ATS.

Thomas Varrin, a spokesman from the roads and bridges department of the canton of Bern, described the discovery of radioactive waste as an isolated case.

Varrin said that workers were not in danger of being exposed to radiation, ATS reported.

Charrière, from the federal public health office, said there was no health risk to people living near the dump or for the workers working on the construction site.

But new checks of the area are to be made this month and the results of the analysis will be made public, authorities said.

In the meantime, the federal health office has set up a site to respond to emailed inquiries from the public to respond to potential concerns.

The use of radium paint for watch dials has been banned in Switzerland for more than 50 years.

However, legislation to protect against radioactive substances has only existed in the country since 1991, ATS said.

As a result, its seems to be very difficult to pursue the watch industry for having dumped radium paint before its was banned, Sybille Estier, a specialist on radioactivity in the environment from the public health office, is quoted as saying by the news agency.

Biel, a bilingual (German-French) city also known as Bienne, is home to the headquarters of Swatch, the world’s largest watch company.

No information has been disclosed about the watch company involved with the radioactive waste.

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