Nuclear plant will take 50 years to dismantle

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At least 50 years will be spent closing down the Dounreay nuclear plant on the north coast of Scotland, at an estimated cost of £4bn to the taxpayer, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) said yesterday.

At least 50 years will be spent closing down the Dounreay nuclear plant on the north coast of Scotland, at an estimated cost of £4bn to the taxpayer, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) said yesterday.

Even if all goes to plan, and the three reactors at the Caithness facility are safely dismantled with all high-level radioactive waste removed, parts of the site will need monitoring for a further 300 years.

Removing the radioactive debris in a 200ft waste shaft, which exploded in 1977, will alone take up to 25 years, at a cost of more than £300m.

"Decommissioning Dounreay will be a challenging task. It will take many decades to complete, and will require the long-term commitment of significant public resources," the UKAEA stated in its Dounreay site restoration plan, published yesterday.

The programme is split into five phases, during which the site will be progressively dismantled and returned to the nearest the nuclear industry can hope to get to greenfield conditions. The reactor building's dome will be left as a monument. The plan will start with an intense building programme to deal with the vast amount of nuclear waste generated by the decommissioning.

All main hazards are expected to be rendered safe within 25 years of the start of the dismantling operation. This includes the decommissioning of the materials test reactor, the prototype fast reactor and the larger Dounreay fast reactor.

An unresolved issue is what to do with the plutonium-containing fuel of the prototype fast reactor. The Department of Trade and Industry has to decide on which of three options to pursue. These are:

* Reprocessing the fuel at Dounreay, bitterly opposed by environmental organisations;

* A hybrid strategy of reprocessing the unirradiated and less dangerous fuel at Dounreay, leaving the irradiated fuel to be reprocessed at the Sellafield plant in Cumbria;

* A treatment strategy where the fuel is made safe for storage at Dounreay until a national nuclear waste repository is built by the Government.

Dounreay's history began with an experimental reactor being built in 1954, but its success rested on "fast reactor" technology, which was considered the future of nuclear power 30 years ago.

The Dounreay fast reactor was built in 1962 and anotherfast reactor begun in 1975, only to be shut down in 1994 when the Government abandoned fast reactor technology. After the chemical explosion in the waste shaft, which blew its lid off, Dounreay was hit by a succession of safety scares, including concerns about a missing amount of enriched uranium, which had been "lost" in the system.

In 1998, it was announced that Dounreay would be closed, for economic and scientific reasons. Soon after, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate made a total of 143 recommendations to safeguard the site. It was in response to these recommendations that the new management of the plant prepared yesterday's plan.

The UKAEA said that to achieve the decommissioning of Dounreay it would be necessary to generate radioactive discharges into the environment.

Kevin Dunion, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: "For every one year that the Dounreay nuclear reactor operated, it is to take two years to clean up the mess. Over 100 years of activity and billions of pounds of public money will have been squandered propping up this nuclear white elephant."

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