'Fears remain' over Dounreay explosion

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The Independent Online

Science Editor

Independent experts have again criticised the UK Atomic Energy Authority's handling of a 1977 explosion which scattered radioactive waste beyond its Dounreay research establishment in Caithness, in the Highlands.

The AEA's response to investigations by two expert groups into radioactive pollution of the beach at Dounreay "cannot enhance public confidence and could well breed mistrust", says a letter published in the Independent today. The letter is signed by the respective chairmen of the two groups, Professor Bryn Bridges, of the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment, and Sir John Knill, of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee.

The letter warns that "the scale and extent" of the radioactive contamination from the 1977 explosion are still not known and notes the AEA was covered by Crown Immunity at the time, so that "all inquiries were internalised". The explosion was not mentioned in a letter about planned and unplanned radioactive discharges which the Dounreay management sent to the Department of Health in 1987.

Because this letter was used by Comare in assessing the incidence of childhood leukaemia in the area, "the authority of [Comare's] report may have been diminished by the lack of timely and relevant information", according to the two committee chairmen. Furthermore, a detailed internal AEA report written in 1984 had not been forwarded to Comare.

As late as January this year, the experts were being told that the explosion was not an "unplanned discharge" because it had not scattered radioactivity.

In fact, the letter published today reveals that photographs were taken at the time of the explosion showing that it was not tenable to assume contamination was just on the site. Further evidence indicating off-site contamination is contained in the contemporary incident reports.

Letters, page 16