LEADING ARTICLE: Dereliction of duty at Dounreay

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The Independent Online
For decades public opinion has maintained an uneasy truce with the world of nuclear energy. The deal on nuclear weapons was that we reluctantly accept them because others have them and because of the Cold War, but we expect serious efforts to prevent proliferation, restrain stockpiles and avoid unnecessary testing. On the civil use of nuclear power, we applauded the environmental benefits, in terms of routine atmospheric pollution, recognised the potential long-run value of a non-fossil fuel, but expected an effective safety regime.

At every stage, the controllers of atomic power have let us down. The necessary secretiveness of an industry born in global war extended far too long into the peace. The UK electricity industry rigged the case for expensive power stations and misled us about decommissioning costs. Then there was Chernobyl.

This week we have had more. First President Chirac, in an utterly misjudged fanfare of French national pomp, announced the resumption of nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific. It does not help that he can argue that Britain is still updating its nuclear arsenal, along with the United States, Russia and China.

Then we had the exposure of the cover-up at the Dounreay nuclear establishment in northern Scotland. We now know that Scottish public beaches have been littered since 1977 with tiny lumps of radioactive metal blasted from a nuclear waste dump. If a seagull swallowed such a particle, the bird would be dead before it left the bay, according to scientists familiar with the leak.

Yet for years the Scottish Pollution Inspectorate has failed to identify that the metal comes from the 1977 explosion. The inspectors still maintain that the dump is safe, even though it is only 65 metres underground and close to a cliff that is being eroded by the sea. Finally, this week, a group of scientists sent in by the Department of Health told us about the radioactive metal and called for the dump to be emptied. After this report, our safety inspectors look as unreliable as their peers were in the former Soviet Union.

The unhappy truth is that the nuclear industry worldwide, in both its defence and civil forms, appears incapable of shedding its secretive, technocratic personality. The result is that more people, probably the majority, will applaud when the new Rainbow Warrior heads for the French test site, to continue the Greenpeace campaign of disruption. It was that campaign, remember, which led to the sinking of the first Rainbow Warrior by French secret agents. It also means that more people will be more worried than they otherwise would be as the Government presses ahead with privatising the nuclear power industry, even though they ought, perhaps, to take comfort from the fact that placing the nuclear power industry in the private sector might help to increase scrutiny by decreasing the direct involvement of government.

If this vicious circle of mistrust is to be broken, governments and nuclear power authorities need to act differently. That is why the safety inspectors who failed in their task at Dounreay should be dismissed and replaced with an organisation genuinely at arm's length both from government and the nuclear industry.