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Dounreay: Decision to clean up waste shaft

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 19, 1997) In the first week of December the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority told ministers that the Dounreay waste shaft must be cleaned up to prevent an environmental disaster. The UK Government (taxpayers, that is) faces a 500 million pound (US$825 million) bill. The managers of Dounreay have submitted a formal recommendation to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) that the waste should be retrieved, packaged and stored above ground. Ministers are expected to give the go-ahead before the end of the year.

(483/4.4801) WISE Amsterdam -This is the first time that managers have admitted past mistakes, reflecting a new policy of openness in recent years. According to the director of Dounreay: "The whole culture has changed radically, we want to be completely open and honest now." "To say that they were lying is not an unreasonable conclusion to reach," commented Sir John Knill, former head of the government-appointed Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee.

The Dounreay 15MW fast-breeder reactor started operations in 1959. It was the first reactor designed to generate electricity and "breed" its own fuel at the same time. Scientists of the era promised home electric bills as low as one penny a year. In 1994 the fast reactor programme was abandoned when the government funding stopped. Three years later Dounreay's legacy is one of arrogance, complacency and incompetence.

The 220 feet (75 meter) deep shaft that must be cleaned was dug to remove rock carved out during construction of a low-level waste effluent pipe which runs into the Atlantic Ocean. In 1959 managers plugged the bottom and began using it as a waste repository. Over the next 18 years at least 700 cubic meters of a deadly cocktail that included highly enriched uranium and plutonium was secretly sunk in the shaft. It is not known exactly what was dumped in the shaft between 1959 and 1977, as no proper records were kept. Safety was so lax that waste was carried across the site in open-top cardboard boxes or empty paint tins before being dropped into the water at the bottom of the shaft. If containers did not sink, workers shot holes in them with air pistols. The dumping stopped in 1977 after a major accident. Two elements, sodium and potassium coolant reacted with the water and generated so much hydrogen that the mix exploded, blowing off the top of the shaft and scattering radioactive particles over the surrounding beaches. Then-director Clifford Blumheld assured the public it was "a low intensity bang" with insignificant fall-out. However later investigations revealed radiation levels were six times higher than Dounreay had admitted. Two years ago men in space suits were sent to pick up pebbles on beaches where for 18 years children had played.

Now the cliffs are eroding and the shaft is in danger of collapsing into the Atlantic. Scientists fear that radioactive particles are already leaking, meanwhile Dounreay experts say it will take up to 30 years to clean the shaft. According to industry sources the bill could rise to 500 million or even 1 billion pounds (US$1.66 billion). Six consortiums are biding for the contract. In their submission to DTI the managers of the consortiums or of Dounreay say they will freeze the waste by pumping cooled bins into the rock around the shaft and "defrost" it meter by meter, allowing robots to lift it to the surface for packaging. When the shaft is empty it will be cleaned and filled with concrete. Roy Nelson, director of Dounreay, admits it is a dangerous operation, because a potentially chemically unstable situation will be disturbed. Safety will be top priority, he says. Local people and activists are at least glad that the AEA has finally accepted responsibility for the radioactive mess Dounreay created.

Source: The Guardian, 8 & 10 December 1997.
Contact: Scotland Against Nuclear Dumping pressure group SAND, 114 Moubray Grove, South Queensferry, Edinburgh, Scotland EH 30 G PE, UK
Or: NENIG, Bain's Beach, Commercial Str. Lerwick, Shetland ZE1 OAC, UK
Tel/Fax: +44-1595-694 099