Fall-out on the foreshore

Eighteen years after an explosion littered their beaches with nuclear waste, Highlanders are discovering the dirty truth about Dounreay research establishment. John Arlidge and Tom Wilkie report

John Arlidge,Tom Wilkie
Wednesday 14 June 1995 23:02

On a Highland coastline blackened and scarred by the 19th-century village clearances, the giant white "golf ball" and concrete hangar that form the Dounreay Nuclear Power station are the most visible signs of 20th-century development. But in Caithness, Britain's most northerly county, the nuclear plant is now, it seems, almost out of sight. There are no signs to the station, no leaflets urging locals and tourists to "come and see for yourself", and no Sellafield-style visitors' centre. No PR glitz, just mottled grey concrete under dark skies. Shut down and being decommissioned, Dounreay has, it appears, been forgotten.

Until now. A report by the Department of Health's Committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (Comare) has thrust the distant, ageing power station back into the public gaze. Jointly with other experts on radioactive waste, Comare scientists who have completed a study of nuclear waste dumping at the site discovered that managers covered up vital information about an explosion at the plant in 1977 which blasted radioactive fragments of spent nuclear fuel on to local public beaches. The contamination, Comare found, was concealed from Government experts investigating an outbreak of leukaemia among local children.

The findings have provoked fierce protest from locals, some of whom contracted the blood-borne cancer after the blast, and environmental groups who have long sought to highlight what they claimed to be dangerous management practices at the plant. They are calling for the head of Scotland's Industrial Pollution Inspectorate, Ian Wright, and for Dounreay managers to resign.

One campaigner, Lorraine Mann, of Scotland Against Nuclear Dumping, said yesterday: "Where were the people who were supposed to be protecting the public against pollution? What have they been doing for the last 18 years? They've failed to do their jobs and should step aside."

For Highlanders and scientists alike, the Comare report constitutes the last devastating blow to a project hailed as the "Great Glowing White Hope" of the nuclear industry in the Fifties but which now stands as a decaying failure. When it began to take shape just after the war, the Dounreay Fast Breeder Reactor became one of Britain's most identifiable symbols of industrial progress. Fast breeder reactors had been the ultimate goal of the nuclear industry since the atom was first split. In the Fifties and Sixties, scientists thought that today's advanced gas-cooled and pressurised water reactors would merely be an intermediate stage to Britain's final fast breeder destination.

The attraction of the fast breeders, of which Dounreay was to have been the first of many, was simple: they could squeeze virtually unlimited power out of nuclear fuel, because as the reactor generated electricity, it created - bred - its own fuel. Physicists saw this as the 20th-century equivalent of alchemy, transmuting base materials into the gold of endless power.

The two halves of the giant golf ball that formed the first Dounreay fast-breeder reactor were joined together on the cliffs at Reay, 10 miles west of Thurso, Britain's most northerly town, in 1955. Local people welcomed the development. The 2,000-strong band of "Atomics" - as the crofters and fishermen called the scientists who were lured from England by high salaries and promises of "the good life" - were bringing jobs and prosperity. At a time when fish stocks in the North Sea were beginning to decline and profits from farming were meagre, the white heat of the nuclear revolution promised a secure future.

For a while Dounreay delivered that future. The first reactor was completed and a second built. For almost 30 years the plant produced enough electricity each day to light the oil city of Aberdeen. It was so successful that after the 1974 oil crisis, the Atomic Energy Authority predicted that unless Britain built at least 20 other fast reactors by 1990, the lights would go out.

Dounreay kept up to 3,000 Highlanders in work. The number of people living in Thurso more than trebled, and workers at the plant spent an estimated pounds 20m in wages in the region each year.

Alistair Fraser, 53, a crofter who has worked as a surveyor at Dounreay for 20 years, recalls: "We live in a marginal, hard place and when the Atomics arrived, we saw them and the nuclear industry as our saviour. The plant was new, bright, futuristic. It taught people engineering and manufacturing skills - things they had no chance of learning in the local economy. Other industries - supply firms, engineers, caterers - sprung up around the plant. The Atomics and their enriched uranium enriched the lives of people living in Caithness. It was a glorious time."

But it did not last. The reactors proved up to three times more expensive to build than their engineers had originally estimated. Because of the high power levels within the core, neither gas nor water was suitable as a coolant. Instead, the engineers turned to liquid metals, sodium and potassium. But while these were elegant solutions in the laboratory, they proved to be tricky when engineers tried to scale up the process. Moreover, when commercial production of North Sea oil and gas began in the Seventies, the energy crisis no longer loomed.

And then there was the problem of waste disposal. In 1956, when radiation safety standards were not as rigorous as they are today, engineers sank a 200ft shaft into rocks near the seafront at Reay. Using a crude system of ropes and pulleys, low-level waste, stored in open-top drums, cardboard boxes and even plastic bags, was dropped unceremoniously to the bottom. It lay there, undisturbed, until one day in 1977 when seawater began to seep into the shaft. The water mixed with sodium and potassium and a huge explosion blew the concrete cap off the hole.

Highly radioactive particles showered on to local beaches. "Hot" material has continued to leak out of Dounreay ever since. But for the past 18 years, managers have assured the public that it does not constitute a danger. It was more than a decade before the beaches were closed to the public. Now, Comare has revealed that managers have been "considerably economical with the truth". They had quickly shovelled the debris back into the hole and chose to spend millions of pounds pumping the shaft dry 24 hours a day in the hope that the problem would go away.

As Comare has now made clear, it will not go away. The cliffs at Reay are eroding and within the next century the shaft, and the waste it holds, will collapse into the Atlantic, polluting beaches and important fishing grounds. The Government's Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, which has reported jointly with Comare, says the waste should be removed and the shaft decontaminated.

It is an awesome task. The drums, boxes and bags are now so corroded that moving them could be highly dangerous. Engineers say the only practical method is to encase the top of the shaft in concrete and use robots to lift the waste into sealed containers. The whole process will take up to 20 years. Dounreay managers estimate the cost at between pounds 100m and pounds 200m; others have suggested that the price tag could be as high as half a billion pounds on top of the pounds 2.5bn of taxpayers' money already being spent on decommissioning the plant.

When scientists from around the world joined managers at Dounreay last year in a ceremony to switch off the 20-year-old reactor, it marked the end of a "powerful and dramatic project" to produce power without end. The result, instead, has been cost and contamination without end. And Britain is only just beginning to pay the price.

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