United Kingdom- Plutonium Investigation n°3

The Dounreay Shaft - Responsibility Dumped With Radioactive Waste

The Dounreay shaft is an example of some of the worst radioactive waste management and disposal practices in the global experience of such activity. The nuclear power development establishment at Dounreay in the North of Scotland was started in the early 1950s for the development of fast-breeder reactors (FBRs) and of FBR fuel reprocessing. It was built in a remote area close to a site at Wick - now used as the local airport for Dounreay - which, at the same time as Dounreay was constructed, was considered by the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), Dounreay's owner operators, as a possible site for the testing of UK nuclear weapons.

In 1955, the UKAEA built an underground discharge pipe 65 meters deep for the discharge of radioactive liquid waste into the sea. It also built a 4.6 meter diameter shaft in order to take out the rock spoil. When the discharge pipe was installed the shaft was sealed at the bottom. Instead of condemning the shaft, or keeping it intact to inspect the discharge pipe, the UKAEA was authorised in 1959 to dump so-called intermediate radioactive waste in the shaft. All kinds of radioactive wastes were dumped in the 75 cubic meter shaft without any precautions as to their radiological or chemical content. There is no precise inventory of the dumped waste, but the shaft is thought to contain 147 kg of highly enriched uranium and 2.2 kg of plutonium, and more than a hundred pieces of fuel elements. The UKAEA was conscious of risks of criticality and in 1968 it dumped powdered boronated glass into the shaft - as if a nuclear reaction could be controlled as you put salt into a pot of soup.

On 10 may 1977, a hydrogen explosion burst the shaft open and dispersed some of the shaft's contents into the surrounding environment. The explosion was completely covered up by the authorities at the time and the whole extent of the by a BBC television programme. Now, some thirty years after waste was first introduced into the shaft and twenty years after the explosion, UKAEA is trying to find a contractor willing to empty the shaft. Costs for cleaning-up, retrieving and repackaging the waste and also dealing with the shaft, are estimated to range up to 500 million pounds and could take 10 to 15 years.

During Autumn 1997, finally, the Scottish Office barred the catching of fish or shellfish for a two kilometre radius around the discharge pipe of the whole nuclear complex, after divers found fragments of irradiated nuclear fuel in seabed sediments. Other hot particles had already been found in the Dounreay environment, for which the plant operators were strongly criticised by RWMAC in recent reports.

The nuclear industry monthly Nuclear Engineering International considers that the Dounreay shaft explosion "created one of the most interesting radwaste problems facing the British nuclear industry". That is one way to put it.

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