from Sunday Herald, 15 May 2005
THE nuclear complex at Dounreay has suffered more than 250 safety “failures” in the past six years, according to documents released by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa).
Many of the leaks, spills and equipment breakdowns have never been reported before, and raise concerns that Dounreay’s operator, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), has failed to overcome the poor safety practices of the past.
In response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act, Sepa has provided the Sunday Herald with a 26-page list summarising every incident at Dounreay. It reveals that, since 1999, there have been an average of 40 problems a year, with the highest number, 53, in 2004.
They include the radioactive contamination of whelks, winkles, rabbits, concrete, soil, water, air and beaches. Samplers monitoring for tritium and other radioactive emissions have frequently been reported as being faulty.
There are repeated violations of safety conditions, leaking waste tanks, lost radioactive waste and power cuts. Some records of discharges have been wrong for months.
As many as 18 incidents are listed in the first three months of 2005. They include an “abnormal” radioactive discharge from a stack, the contamination of grass with caesium-137, and a spill of radioactive caustic soda.
Sepa’s list also records evidence that, in 2003, rabbits and birds had been using several nuclear waste pits. In January 2004, an analysis of rabbit droppings from a contaminated area showed that they were radioactive.
In November 2002, “yellow liquid leaked from a transport flask on to the floor”. In December 2001, Sepa was told that liquid waste had turned pale pink, then green.
The list recounts the incident in December 1999 when radioactive waste containers were loaned to the local community to help make a “Santa’s grotto” in Thurso. “No adequate protocols or systems are in place for segregating and controlling this type of waste,” commented Sepa at the time.
The disclosure of the Dounreay list has prompted renewed attacks from the plant’s foremost critic, Lorraine Mann of Scotland Against Nuclear Dumping. “There is a constant danger of catastrophic failures and catastrophic accidents,” she said.
“That is illustrated by this constant stream of incidents, not all of which may have been serious, but none of which should have happened.”
Mann pointed out that there seemed to have been an increasing number of problems since 1999. “Some may be due to legacy issues, but a large proportion are in the here and now,” she argued.
In addition to the 255 incidents since 1999, Sepa’s list mentions a further 82 that took place between 1972 and 1998. But that is almost certainly an underestimate as in the early years Dounreay did not report every incident to regulators.
The UKAEA stressed that Dounreay today was “a very different place” from what it was in the 1970s and 1980s when it was exempt from some safety regulations. A safety audit in 1998 by Sepa and the government’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate had been a “watershed” after which new standards had been brought in.
“All staff are encouraged to report unusual occurrences, however insignificant they may appear. These are investigated thoroughly and the findings are shared openly and honestly with regulators and stakeholders,” said a UKAEA spokeswoman.
“Many of these reports, such as the discovery of every particle found in the marine environment, reflect the practices of the 1960s and 1970s, not those of today.” Dounreay’s current commitment to safety is shown by its ranking as “one of the safest workplaces in Britain”, the spokeswoman contended.
A Sepa spokesman said that Sepa had always taken a close interest in Dounreay. Ensuring that Dounreay is now decommissioned in compliance with its authorisations was “a major challenge”, he added.
“Sepa understands that the current management team at Dounreay is fully aware of its environmental obligations and is committed to meeting them. However, this will not stop Sepa from taking appropriate enforcement action should there be a breach of its authorisations.”