So farewell then, `hell-broth boil and bubble'

Geoffrey Lean
Saturday 13 June 1998 23:02
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REMEMBER Macbeth? "Nothing is but what is not". The phrase from "the Scottish play" has been running through my mind while something of a farce is being played out nearby.

The setting is Dounreay, about 70 miles north from Macbeth's Cawdor as the witch flies. The plot is the Government's abrupt announcement, just over a week ago, that it was "stopping" nuclear reprocessing at the controversial plant.

"An astonishing turnaround," crowed Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP. "The whole of Scotland is breathing one massive sigh of relief," added Lorraine Mann of Scotland Against Nuclear Dumping, the main local scourge of the plant.

But hang on. Nothing is stopping for a long time yet, while the plant fulfils existing contracts. Ministers reckon that the 16 or so tons of used fuel still left to reprocess will last until 2006. (Given the plant's record of accidents and breakdowns, it's a fair bet that it will take much longer.) They do not seem to agree with the Thane of Cawdor that "if it were done ... `twere well it were done quickly".

And it doesn't look as if the plant was going to get much more business anyway. "If anyone comes knocking on Dounreay's door, the answer is no," proclaimed Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar. But the truth is that the world seems no more willing to beat a path to the plant on Scotland's north coast than to play a social call on Lady Macbeth.

Even attempts to tempt, or to drag, customers in haven't got very far. There seems to have been only one new contract remotely in prospect, with Australia - and though ministers spoke grandly of "cancelling" it, nothing had been signed and Dounreay couldn't tell me last week if it ever would have been.

And would other customers have signed up? "It is very difficult to say who would have done," say Dounreay. "If any?" "Correct". Looks to me more like death by natural causes than a ministerial execution.

The only real revolution seems to have been in the spinning. The Government announced there was "no long-term economic case for the plant" just two days after Tony Blair had accused Mr Salmond in the Commons of "utter irresponsibility" for questioning its viability.

It seems ministers were panicked into the announcement by the advance of the SNP, waving its greenery like Burnham Wood. Otherwise they would (to quote one of Bertie Wooster's favourite lines from "the Scottish play") have gone on "letting `I dare not' wait upon `I would', like the poor cat i' the adage".

5 MIND you, there's some justice in the Scottish nationalists delivering the coup de grace, since the plant was deliberately sited as far away from London as you can go without falling into the sea. A secret memorandum by the Ministry of Supply in 1953 reveals why: the Government feared it might blow up.

Scottish lives seem to have counted little. Nearly a quarter of a century afterwards, Lord Hinton, the eminent architect of the British nuclear industry, revealed how safety standards had been rigged to build the plant just 10 miles from Thurso.

He and colleagues had counted the number of people in the area that would be seriously affected by a "minor nuclear explosion" and found "to our dismay that the site did not comply with the safety distances specified" from towns and villages. But this, he added, "was easily put right". The estimate of the reach of an accident was arbitrarily scaled down tenfold, and the count done again. "By doing this," continued Hinton, "we established the fact that the site was perfect."

Now the Nats, flushed with success - and boosted by ministers' cack- handedness in making the Dounreay announcement coincide with the SNP conference - are turning their attention to the even more controversial reprocessing plant at Sellafield. They regard it as their issue, as it pollutes Scottish shores with radioactivity. This is sensitive stuff, as the plant is in the constituency of agriculture minister Jack Cunningham. Labour whips last week bizarrely insisted on deleting the word "Sellafield" from a backbench early day motion attacking its discharges.

Oh, I almost forgot. The famous sphere of the Dounreay fast breeder reactor, once seen as the harbinger of a new atomic age, now long abandoned, is called the "Dome of Discovery". Sound familiar?

5 TALKING of domes, one of the more exotic hats I figuratively wear on my bald pate is as an adviser to an environmental initiative by the Eastern Orthodox pope, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Occasionally I get letters from him, addressed to "the most esteemed Geoffrey Lean, beloved in the Lord". If only my bank manager felt like that.

I have just received one inviting me to a conference on the island of Halki near Istanbul about "the Environment and Poverty", jointly sponsored - appropriately, as you'll agree - with Prince Philip. While he's there, the Prince might be interested to note, as he and his family debate the modernisation of "the Firm", that the Patriarch styles himself "His Modesty".

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