Dounreay radioactive waste `broke safety laws'

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The Independent Online

Science Editor

The Dounreay atomic plant in the north of Scotland is being investigated for possible breaches of safety laws by the Government's nuclear safety watchdog. The move could result in prosecution of the plant's management.

The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) has launched its investigation following revelations last week that an explosion in a nuclear waste dump in 1977 had blasted fragments of spent radioactive fuel on to the local beach.

A spokesman for the NII said that the inspectorate's primary concern was to ensure "technical steps are taken by the operator" to make the site safe. Thereafter, "it will consider if further enforcement action needs to be taken".

Such action could include prosecuting the plant's operators, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), said the spokesman: "There seems to have been a breach at Dounreay of condition 34 of the standard nuclear site licence."

This states that radioactive waste on a nuclear site must be controlled so it cannot escape. It also says that if a leak does occur, it must be detected and the NII must be informed promptly.

A contaminated area of the site containing hundreds of radioactive particles has lain undetected on the clifftop near the site of the explosion since 1977. It was picked up last year when scientists investigating cases of childhood leukaemia near the plant started asking questions.

According to Dr Tom Wheldon, of the Beatson Cancer Research laboratories in Glasgow, who led the expert group which reported last week: "Some of these particles are sufficiently radioactive to kill a man if ingested." Dr Wheldon said that when the experts were briefed about the nuclear waste dump in 1987, they were told the explosion had no radioactive consequence. Members of the expert group, the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment, said they were "mystified" not to have received "timely and relevant information".

The NII yesterday said it was "not yet" satisfied it had received all the information it should have got from the operators of the plant. "But the inspectors have full powers to demand every relevant piece of paper and that is uppermost in their minds with respect to the possibility of further enforcement action," the spokesman said.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the inspectorate has regulated safety at Dounreay only since 1990. The site has been owned and operated since the late 1950s by the UKAEA, which had crown immunity from the safety regulations governing the rest of the civil nuclear- power industry. Until that was ended in 1990, the authority was responsible for policing safety at its own establishments.

The NII's investigations therefore may not deal with the explosion itself, but only with its consequences after 1990. However, the NII "does take this matter seriously and is addressing it with some urgency", the spokesman said.