Chronic safety faults at Dounreay

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The Independent Online
MANAGERS AT the Dounreay nuclear plant were yesterday ordered to "get tough on safety" after yet another damning report on operations at the north of Scotland site. Investigators sent into the 44-year-old installation found "many chronic safety problems", low morale and a failure of senior managers to even walk around the plant on a regular basis.

The team, headed by the Chief Inspector of Nuclear Installations, found organisational changes made within the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority over the past four years had "so weakened the management and technical base at Dounreay that it is not in a good position to tackle what is its principal mission - the decommissioning of the site".

The authority had hoped to resume reprocessing work at Dounreay - halted in 1996 after a leak - and privately believed its case was strengthened with the recent acceptance of weapons-grade material from Georgia.

But Donald Dewar, Secretary of State for Scotland, made plain in response to the report that the ban on new commercial reprocessing work would continue. There would be no reprocessing of material already at Dounreay until all the points raised in the report had been dealt with.

"One thing is clear - Dounreay must get tough on safety," Mr Dewar said. He has asked the Health and Safety Executive, which published the scathing 150-page report, for an immediate briefing on how the faults can be put right.

Though Laurence Williams, the chief inspector, declared Dounreay "currently safe", his team's findings and the demand for a "culture change" are a severe embarrassment to the authority and its Dounreay management. The criticisms echo a 1997 report that showed the plant reaching crisis point, with areas overflowing with waste. Then, last July, the Commons Trade and Industry Committee condemned what it called a "culture of secrecy" pervading the various operations.

Mr Williams said the authority was "over-dependent" on contractors for the delivery of key functions and had failed to develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the various forms of radioactive waste at the site.

The report is highly critical over the "lack of progress" on decommissioning work at the Caithness plant, once Britain's centre for the development of fast-breeder reactor technology. In the past 10 years there had been virtually no work on a reactor shut down in 1977. About 1,000 fuel elements remain in the reactor but some are jammed and the authority has not yet developed a way of removing them.

The investigators said managers tended to be "self-referencing" and had accepted standards that would not have been accepted by the rest of the nuclear industry. According to staff, senior managers rarely walked around the plant on a regular basis.

Friends of the Earth Scotland saw the report as a vindication of its long-running campaign for a complete end to reprocessing and a switch to alternative ways of dealing with radioactive waste, notably dry storage.

Kevin Dunion, director of FoE Scotland, said: "Given the problems the executive has highlighted, it beggars belief that anyone should consider reprocessing as part of the decommissioning process."