from Sunday Herald, 17 January 2010
Secret Scottish government documents obtained by the Sunday Herald have revealed deep divisions within the then Conservative government in London and Edinburgh.
Fellow ministers fought angrily behind the scenes over the highly sensitive - and still unresolved - issue of where to bury the highly dangerous radioactive waste left behind by Britain’s nuclear power and weapons programmes.
The revelations come from more than 200 pages released by the Scottish government after the biggest and longest freedom of information battle so far fought in Scotland. Files on nuclear waste were first requested more than four years ago, and have only now been unveiled at the insistence of the Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion.
The documents shed a fascinating new light on the internal squabbles that dogged attempts to solve the intransigent problem of what to do with nuclear waste, some of which remains lethal for hundreds of thousands of years.
The Conservative government’s environment secretary in 1989, Nicholas Ridley, proposed sinking boreholes at three sites to investigate their suitability as nuclear waste dumps. Two of the sites were near the Dounreay nuclear plant in Caithness, and the third was close to the Sellafield complex in Cumbria.
But Rifkind, strongly backed by other Scottish Office ministers and officials, opposed the investigations at Caithness because they believed that public opinion in the area was strongly against the idea.
Ridley’s response, however, was blunt. “I am afraid that I must take issue with you on most of the major points,” he told Rifkind on 10 January 1989. “I should it extremely difficult to defend a decision to look only at sites in England.”
In order to boost his case, Ridley copied the correspondence to the Prime Minister at the time, Mrs Thatcher. She came firmly to his defence, and slapped down Rifkind.
“The Prime Minister has commented that she considers it to be unacceptable to proceed with investigations at one site only - i.e. Sellafield,” said a memo from her private secretary on 19 January 1989.
“Her view is that, given the high percentage of Scotland’s power needs which are met by nuclear generation, it is right that one site for investigation should be in Scotland. The Prime Minister has further commented that she feels that action should now be taken on this issue rather than further lengthy debate.”
The end result of her intervention was that Rifkind lost the argument, and test bores were sunk in Caithness. However the Scottish sites were then rejected as potential waste dumps, as later was Sellafield, after a public inquiry.
Malcolm Rifkind, now a conservative MP for Kensington and Chelsea in London, remembered the arguments. “I didn’t agree with Ridley,” he said. “I was disappointed that sites happened to be in Caithness.”
But he added that the arguments put forward by Ridley and Thatcher were “not unreasonable” and it was “pretty predictable” that they won the day. He was pleased to note however, that Caithness had been subsequently ruled out.
At the time, Scottish Office officials warned that the policy being pursued by UK ministers was going to create a “mess”. The timetable being proposed was “hopelessly unrealistic” and the idea that a proper safety case could be prepared in time was “equally silly”, said one memo.
Another draft briefing for Rifkind prior to a crunch meeting with Ridley argued that the UK strategy was so flawed that it was doomed to fail. It was “likely to create so hostile a climate from the outset as to destroy any likelihood of getting a deep repository at all,” the briefing warned.
More than 20 years on, with no nuclear waste repositories yet in sight in Scotland or England, those words look prophetic.