Dounreay's radioactive particles

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The Independent Online
From Professor Bryn Bridges and Sir John Knill

Sir: As the chairman of the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (Comare) and the then chairman of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC), we must respond to the letter ( 20 June) from Dr Derek Pooley, Chief Executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority.

On 10 May 1977, an explosion ejected radioactive material from a shaft containing intermediate level waste at Dounreay. The scale and extent of the consequential contamination is not known to us. The Crown Immunity which existed at that time ensured that all inquires were internalised.

Our committees produced joint reports on the contamination of the beach at Dounreay with radioactive metallic particles. The reports catalogue a series of incidents over many years at Dounreay regarding the untimely and inaccurate provision of information and the inappropriate management of radioactive waste.

Central to the concerns of Comare was that "the authority of its second report may have been diminished by a lack of timely and relevant information". On 6 August 1987, UKAEA Dounreay wrote to the DHSS concerning radioactive discharges, "including unplanned ones". This letter was an important source of information to Comare.

The May 1977 explosion in the intermediate-level waste shaft is not mentioned in that letter, notwithstanding the fact that as early as 1984, staff at UKAEA and at HM Industrial Pollution Inspectorate had considered a number of hypotheses for the origin of the particles found on the Dounreay foreshore. The matter was the subject of a detailed internal UKAEA report in 1984, but this had not been made available to Comare.

When RWMAC visited Dounreay in January 1995, UKAEA explained that the shaft explosion did not represent an "unplanned discharge", because such a discharge required material to be expelled beyond the site boundary. There is contemporary evidence, in both the incident reports and photographs, that radioactive material was expelled outside the site. The UKAEA's record of the meeting with RWMAC states:

Sir John [Knill] said that, looking at the photographs after the explosion, Dounreay cannot have assumed that contamination was just on the site. He said that it is not a tenable position and that the incident has been repeatedly underplayed. He described the position taken by Dounreay on the shaft explosion having not resulted in a discharge from the site as indefensible.

There was no response by UKAEA and indeed there cannot be a response.

Since 1984, a dozen or so radioactive particles have been found year- in year-out on the Dounreay beach. Only as a result of the activity of Comare, and then RWMAC, has action to identify the source of the particles quite recently been put in place.

Just this month, a UKAEA public-relations video on the particles refers twice to a now-discredited incident in 1965 as the only specifically named possible source of the particles, and yet makes no mention of the 1977 shaft explosion. This situation cannot enhance public confidence and could well breed mistrust.

Yours faithfully

Bryn Bridges

Chairman, Comare

John Knill

Past-chairman, RWMAC

Newbury, Berkshire

26 June