Radioactive contamination that leaked for more than two decades from the Dounreay nuclear plant on the north coast of mainland Scotland will never been completely cleaned up, a Scottish government agency has admitted.
At a board meeting in Stirling on Tuesday, the Scottish government’s environmental watchdog opted to encourage remediation “as far as is practically achievable” but to abandon any hope of removing all the radioactive pollution from the seabed.
Tens of thousands of radioactive fuel fragments escaped from the Dounreay plant between 1963 and 1984, polluting local beaches, the coastline and the seabed.
The most radioactive of the particles are regarded by experts as potentially lethal if ingested. Similar in size to grains of sand, they contain caesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, but they can also incorporate traces of plutonium-239, which has a half-life of over 24,000 years – meaning that is the time period for half of the material to break down.
In 2007, Dounreay, which is now being decommissioned, pled guilty at Wick sheriff court to a “failure to prevent fragments of irradiated nuclear fuel being discharged into the environment”. The plant’s operator at the time, the UK Atomic Energy Authority, was fined £140,000.
Since 2008 over 2,300 radioactive particles have been recovered from the seabed, with 351 removed by a remotely operated underwater vehicle this summer. Since 1983, over 480 particles have also been found on three local beaches and the Dounreay foreshore.
An expert committee set up by Sepa warned in 2006 that disturbing the seabed could cause particles to escape and be swept ashore, putting members of the public at risk. The most radioactive particle found “could have had life-threatening consequences if it had been ingested”, the committee said.
Friends of the Earth Scotland, however, condemned the decision. “Once again, we see the nuclear industry causing a problem it can’t solve, and dumping the cost and consequence on the rest of us,” said the environmental group’s chief executive, Stan Blackley.
“Nuclear power is neither safe, clean, cheap nor low-carbon and it continues to cause problems and cost the taxpayer a hidden and open-ended fortune. Let’s learn from our past mistakes and consign it to a lead-lined dustbin.”
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