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Wednesday, April 22, 1998 Published at 16:16 GMT 17:16 UK


Dounreay: 'Waste dump for the world'
image: [ An explosion 21 years ago increased fears of environmental contamination ]
An explosion 21 years ago increased fears of environmental contamination

The isolated nuclear establishment of Dounreay in Scotland is soon to receive a total of 5.1kg (11.2lbs) of uranium, including 800g (1lb 12oz) of waste fuel flown in an American transport plane from the former Soviet state of Georgia.

Most of the material is "fresh" and can be turned into medical isotopes for the treatment of cancer.

But the move has once more raised the thorny issue of handling nuclear waste.

[ image:  ]
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has accused the government of turning Scotland into a waste dump for the world. The SNP leader, Alex Salmond, accused the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, of "prostituting Scotland as a world nuclear dustbin to curry favour with the Clinton administration".

A number of Labour MPs were also reported to have expressed concern about Britain being seen as a "soft touch" for the dumping of nuclear waste.

The government has justified its decision to accept the material saying that if left in Georgia it could "fall into the wrong hands" and the Dounreay was the safest place to store and reprocess it.

[ image: Dounreay: fears of radioactive leaks along the shoreline]
Dounreay: fears of radioactive leaks along the shoreline
Frances Taylor of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, the industry's independent regulator, said Britain might not ultimately be able to deal with all the material and that reprocessing plans were not complete.

"Dounreay can store it safely for the time being. Once it's on site we will discuss with them in detail what they are going to do with it," she said.

Environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and Scotland Against Nuclear Dumping refute these claims, saying that Dounreay is highly dangerous because of leakages.

In 1977, there was an explosion in a 65-metre deep shaft used to dump a mixture of unrecorded waste. The shaft is believed to be the cause of widespread radioactive contamination of the Dounreay foreshore.

Local resistance

The accident prompted an outcry from local residents who once supported the site and the jobs it created.

In a recent referendum in the Scottish county of Caithness, home to Dounreay, 65.5% of voters were against the importation of spent fuel for reprocessing.

Three years ago, a government committee on radioactive waste management warned that a nearby cliff was in danger of collapsing from natural erosion and could cause another leak in the shaft within the next 100 years.

Now, Friends of the Earth said it wants a pledge from Tony Blair "that Britain will not be the final repository for Georgian nuclear waste or nuclear waste from any other country".

Kevin Dunion of Friends of the Earth said: "This material is never likely to be returned to the originator and will languish forever in Scotland."

Fast-breeder has-been

Dounreay was opened in 1955 as the centre for the UK's fast-breeder reactor programme fuelled by plutonium. Based near Thurso on the north coast of Scotland, it was chosen as a nuclear site because of its isolated position away from large concentrations of people.

The site is owned by the Department of Trade and Industry and run by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) which is also responsible for other nuclear power stations in Britain.

The Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) was shut down in the late 1970s and replaced with the larger Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR). This in turn was closed in 1994, along with the Dounreay Materials Test Reactor, when the British government decided to phase out fast-reactor development.

Two reprocessing plants remain:

  • a Mixed Oxide plant for reprocessing fast reactor-type fuel
  • a smaller Materials Testing Reactor (MTR) plant which handles weapons-grade highly-enriched uranium (HEU) like the material being imported from Georgia.

Ultimately both these plants will have to be decommissioned.

The government has promised to foot the bill for decommissioning (£500m over ten years), and the clean-up bill - expected to reach more than £200m over 25 years.

At the same time it has accepted commercial contracts such as reprocessing of spent fuel, destruction of contaminated sodium and conversion of ex-Soviet nuclear weapons to new weapons grade material to be sold to other countries.

Environmentalists say these projects will not only feed the Treasury coffers but also lead to further contamination of the site and the surrounding area.

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22 Apr 98 | World
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Scotland Against Nuclear Dumping: Dounreay

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