Nuclear pollution : Treading carefully to avert disaster

One thing would have prevented decades of radioactive pollution in the far north of Scotland: open government. It is as far out of sight, and as far out of mind, as any place on the British mainland could be. From the point of view of our political leaders, this is just as well. If the perennial farce at the Dounreay nuclear site, on the north coast of Scotland, were any closer to the surface of public consciousness, we would be hounding and haranguing them wherever they go.

A report in last weekend’s London Sunday Times suggests that the agencies charged with cleaning the site up have, in effect, conceded defeat. Dounreay cannot be wholly decontaminated. Nuclear pollution from the site will last for as long as the fissile metals remain radioactive. Perhaps we should not be surprised to discover that, when the experimental reactor at Dounreay was commissioned, no thought was given to the problem of how it might be dismantled. In 1954 the nuclear industry, shielded from public scrutiny by the Official Secrets Act, behaved as if it were based on an uninhabited planet. The Cold War and the prospect of electricity too cheap to metre seemed to justify almost any kind of corner cutting.

Nor, sadly, is there anything unusual about the plant’s later cock-ups. Last month, for example, Dounreay was fined GBP 2 million for spilling radioactive waste. Last year its regulators reported that 250 safety failures had taken place since 1999. Among them was Dounreay’s generous gift to the community of containers used to store low-level radioactive waste. They were to be turned into a Santa’s grotto for local children. Another report showed that fissile waste was being stored in paint tins or simply left where it had been found. One former employee claimed that samples from Dounreay’s radioactive effluent tanks were collected for analysis with a rubber boot on a piece of string, as the proper equipment had rusted up.

Incidents of this kind have taken place at several nuclear sites around the UK. But there are two special features at Dounreay that distinguish the running of this plant from the ordinary catalogue of hazards. Before the first reactor at Dounreay was completed, the operators — the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) — bored a tunnel under the seabed, through which its liquid effluent would be discharged. In order to remove the spoil, UKAEA dug a 200 ft shaft a few yards behind the cliffs. Though this hole was unsealed, though groundwater could flow in and out, and though coastal erosion could pull the whole thing down into the sea within 100 years, in 1959 the British government gave UKAEA permission to use this shaft as a dump for radioactive materials.

In 1998, the London Guardian newspaper discovered that a second hole had been dug, and was still in use despite the demands by government inspectors that it be closed. Though it has been out of use since the explosion in 1977, UKAEA began sealing off the first hole from the groundwater only last week. It must now build robots that can start removing the contents. Isolating and clearing it will cost at least GBP180 million, and take until 2025 to complete. But this is the least of Dounreay’s problems. The public knew little of this until 1997, when two fragments of fissile material were found on Sandside beach, 3 km away. Sixty-eight particles have been detected there so far.

So what can be done to prevent particles from washing up on the shore? The answer now appears to be nothing. The Dounreay Particles Advisory Group has just sent a report to the Environment Protection Agency suggesting, according to the Sunday Times, that the best way of removing the particles from the seabed is by sending down divers. This is a counsel of despair. Of the hundreds of thousands of particles believed to be sitting on or in the seabed, UKAEA’s divers have managed to remove only 900 since 1983. Complete decontamination using dredgers, the UKAEA claims, would cost some GBP 70 billion, which is another way of saying it can’t be done.

The catalogue of idiocy at Dounreay is not necessarily an indictment of all nuclear installations. But it shows that when things go wrong, they can be incredibly hard to redress. Dounreay’s story also reflects the fact that corner cutting is a constant temptation, as disposing of waste properly is difficult and expensive. It also provides a powerful argument in favour of the precautionary principle. This is the much-maligned idea that those intending to do something potentially hazardous should first demonstrate that it will not present a significant risk to the public. But perhaps above all it is another argument for open government. None of this could have taken place if Dounreay’s operations had been open

to public scrutiny. The disasters there happened for the same reason as the disasters in Iraq: the government used “security” as its excuse for hiding the truth from the public. — The Guardian