by George Gunn
Because Dounreay was built to produce plutonium for military use during the Cold War Dounreay is a war crime perpetrated on the people of Scotland by the British government. The collateral damage has been to the lives of the people of the North of Scotland and to the environment. The statistical evidence of the damage to public health due to nuclear related cancers, leukaemia and other diseases has been hidden, denied or explained away by nuclear “experts” as either being “naturally occurring” or manifesting in clusters due to circumstances “unrelated” to the siting of a several experimental nuclear reactors on the North coast of Caithness only a few miles from a town of almost 9,000 people.
The environmental damage done over the past 60 years is unknowable because of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority refused to monitor it accurately and information has only been released due to public pressure and then generally done selectively or partially, or hidden in jargon and presented to the public in a way which has led people to believe that everything was fine and that the actual and real pollution was “harmless” and “short lived”. When finally this charade was exposed the institutional spin of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – who took over responsibility for decommissioning Dounreay from the UKAEA – was to claim that it was the result of a previous management regime and the present management could not possibly be held responsible for the “mistakes of the past”.
But even this chimera has vanished as the new kids on the Dounreay nuclear block, namely Babcock’s who have been granted the contract to “deliver” decommissioning on behalf of the NDA, in their very American way have shown scant regard to the stuffy and seedy traditions of the Official Secrets Act. Whatever troublesome international treaties the British government have entered into on the levels of radiation released into the atmosphere these also have been abandoned if the recent revelations by Rob Edwards published in the Sunday Herald (23rd Dec 2012) are to be believed. Babcock’s silence on the matter confirms that they are in fact planning a drastic escalation of radioactive release and if we are to wait for and to look to SEPA or the SNH to step in to clarify the position and take measures to actually protect the environment then I fear we will be waiting and looking for a long time.
As Rob Edwards noted “Annual discharges of liquid tritium into the Pentland Firth are scheduled to be more than 500 times greater than in the last five years. Aerial emissions of the radioactive gas krypton-85 are due to leap by more than 250 million times. There are also planned increases in discharges of alpha radioactivity, which includes plutonium, as well as iodine-129 and strontium-90.”
SEPA are currently consulting with the Scottish government on the levels of “acceptable” radioactive discharges from Dounreay and the organisation has hinted that the Scottish government has “recognised” that some decommissioning processes will result in an increase of discharge levels. That is to allow what Babcock’s may or may not do to be seen as being “reasonable”, but there is nothing reasonable about an increase of 500% in the amount of liquid tritium flowing into the Pentland Firth. Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen and is a hazard when inhaled, ingested via food or water, or absorbed through the skin. All of this is not reasonable, it is insane. It may be that Babcock’s are gambling here – asking for 500 and perhaps getting 250. The planned increase in alpha radiation release and the 250 million times increase of the aerial emissions of the radioactive gas krypton-85 is beyond gambling: it is beyond belief. But “even” a 250 times anything increase on the levels of the past five years of radioactive discharge into the sea and into the atmosphere of Caithness and the North of Scotland represents an unacceptable and unexplained increase unless it can be seen in the light of the cost reductions all multi-national operators seek to benefit from but will never admit to.
The Babcock Dounreay Partnership, to give the outfit their Sunday name, is a Babcock led partnership with fellow American companies CH2M Hill and URS and the “Partnership” are undertaking the work on behalf of the Dounreay Site Restoration Limited who are the site licence holder and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority who own the site. The budget for this work is £2.5 billion and the end date for the work and for the completion of the “green field site” is set between 2022 and 2025. Most of the nuts and bolts work is being sub-contracted out – rarely to local companies – but the majority of the decommissioning budget is flowing back over the Atlantic and as a result whatever engineering skills and benefits that have been gained over the sixty years of a nuclear presence are being lost. The culture of the UKAEA is history. Time is now money. “Hurry hurry” the new mantra and price the only concern.
Despite the horrendous prospect of radioactive poisoning and chemical pollution it is at least beneficial to have the level of cynicism in operation laid bare for all to see. It is in stark contrast to the benign civil service-style cynicism which was the hallmark of the UKAEA, with its mixture of white hot technological boffinry and Anglo-colonial career-apartheid when it came to the local population of Caithness and complete denial when it came to Dounreay’s Cold War function.
Dounreay and its reactors were a major part of the militarisation of the North of Scotland and was an important cog in the plutonium producing wheel which rolled us ever closer to a nuclear Armageddon. Its remote position in relation to the concentrated centres of population meant that the experimental nature of the plant could be contained if anything went wrong – which it frequently did, most spectacularly in 1977 when the nuclear waste shaft exploded. It is in light of this and also illuminated by the recent revelations why I propose that Dounreay should be considered as a war crime and reported to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Dounreay was an experiment which did not work. What must work is the process which will deliver some kind of justice and compensation for the long suffering people of Caithness in particular and Scotland in general, for Dounreay has a legal duty to minimise “the creation and disposal of nuclear waste”.
According to Pete Roche, the policy advisor to the 50 strong group of UK wide anti-nuclear local authorities “The site operators should be urged to take a more precautionary approach and as a matter of principle make absolutely certain that decommissioning is not being used as an excuse to increase discharges of radioactivity into the Pentland Firth and the atmosphere.” Babcock’s do not like being urged. They enjoy making profits.
Dounreay in Gaelic means “fort of the elongated place or mound”. The area is rich in Neolithic and Iron Age sites. Sine the 1950’s there has been no fortification capable of stemming the tide of all things nuclear – Caithness is now going to the “home” of the “National Nuclear Archive” – with all levels of local politicians queuing up to impersonate the three monkeys when Dounreay is discussed. The price paid is cultural as well as industrial. In a very perceptive article in the Scotsman in the mid 1960’s, to mark the first ten years of Dounreay the nuclear plant, Magnus Magnusson interviewed the late Dr Donald Grant the then recently retired head of the newly built Thurso High School. Magnusson asked him what changes he had seen over this “first atomic decade”? Dr Grant mentioned the increase in population, the economic impact, but mainly he said it had changed the education the children received at secondary school and how they behave culturally. “We now have more of an English educational system with subject specialisation and the dropping of the generalist approach. Traditionally in Caithness education, knowledge was really the only way to better yourself and it was held in high regard because of this. Now there is more of an emphasis on competition, on team sports such as rugby – previously unknown in Caithness – and on identification with school “houses” as opposed to community.”
It is interesting that over the past decade of the Scottish government legislated deconstruction of land ownership and with the spread in popularity of “community buy outs” in the Highlands and Islands Caithness is the only area where there has not been one initiative of this kind taken up. An institutionalisation of the status quo, the absence of “real” politics and a cultural inferiorism which runs two generations deep plus an automaton-like attachment to steady wages and a quiet life has stripped Caithness of much of its spontaneity and imagination. The concerns of Dr Grant in the mid sixties have come home to roost in a disquieting way.
If Dounreay is ever to be anything other than a by-word for toxicity then one of the first things the first democratically elected government in an independent Scotland must do is to nationalise Dounreay, suspend operations, dissolve the Babcock Dounreay Partnership and then begin to ensure that Caithness does not have a nuclear legacy it cannot get rid off or even live with. Many of our neighbouring countries would breathe a sigh of relief. Perhaps the answer is for there to be a community buyout of the Dounreay site so at least the people can know the truth and act accordingly. Otherwise we might end up, paraphrasing Jean Anouilh’s play “Becket”, forever proclaiming like King Henry, “Who will rid me of this troublesome plant?”
Dounreay, once seen as a shining light of scientific achievement and the social largesse of the nuclear British sate, is a failure. Better together? It is quite literally falling apart.
© George Gunn 2013