Nuclear chiefs may be charged over toxic leak

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The Independent Online
JOHN ARLIDGE

Scotland Correspondent

Managers at the Dounreay nuclear research establishment in Caithness are under criminal investigation following allegations that they misled government pollution control inspectors over illegal discharges of radioactive nitric acid at the plant.

Highland River Purification Board confirmed yesterday that it had made a formal complaint to the Scottish prosecution service over the toxic discharges which breach the 1985 Control of Pollution Act. The news comes two days after the Independent revealed that managers concealed evidence of an explosion in a waste shaft in 1977 which blasted radioactive particles on to public beaches near the Caithness plant.

Duncan Buchanan, director of the River Purification Board, said yesterday that officials were "gathering evidence surrounding the discharges as part of a continuing investigation into alleged illegal practices at Dounreay". Atomic Energy Authority managers at the plant could face charges.

Dounreay uses nitric acid to dissolve spent uranium and plutonium fuel rods. When the rods have been reprocessed the acid is pumped into Atlantic waters in the Pentland Firth.

Ten years ago, when the new pollution Act came into force, managers applied for a licence to continue these discharges but they failed to inform the River Purification Board that the effluent was toxic. The licence was granted, but recently pollution control inspectors discovered the discharges were highly acidic and could severely damage the fragile marine environment.

Officials now accuse Dounreay of misleading the board in 1985. One said: "In law, it is up to the organisation seeking the licence to provide the full facts. If Dounreay had given us the full facts about these discharges 10 years ago, we would have addressed this issue then. But they did not."

Environmental campaigners north of the border expressed anger at evidence of the cover-up. Lorraine Mann, of the Scotland Against Nuclear Dumping group, said: "How many more skeletons are there in Dounreay's nuclear cupboard? First we find out that managers covered up the explosion. Now we know they did the same with the acid effluent. Managers should face the full force of the law and answer these highly damaging charges."

Ian Shepherd, a Dounreay spokesman, conceded last night that there had been "some misunderstanding at the time the application to the River Purification Board was made". The daily discharges were still continuing. But, he said: "We are aware of this problem and we are committed to resolving it swiftly. It is not, however, something that can be done in five minutes. It is an expensive and lengthy process."

Dounreay yesterday released the minutes of a meeting with the expert group investigating childhood leukaemias in the area. In a report published earlier this week, the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (Comare) complained that Dounreay staff had not informed it of vital information about the origins of radioactive particles on the beaches.

According to Mr Shepherd, the minutes of the 1987 meeting confirmed Dounreay's position that the experts had been told about a 1977 explosion in a nuclear waste dump. Comare's report revealed, for the first time, that debris from the explosion at the dump is now believed to be responsible for the contamination of the foreshore and surrounding beaches.

The man who led the recent Comare investigation of Dounreay, Dr Tom Wheldon, from the Beatson Cancer Research Laboratory in Glasgow, said that at the 1987 meeting the shaft explosion "was never identified as the source of the particles". He claims that when Dounreay changed its view on the source of the pollution "they did not keep us abreast of the change".

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