From the Province of the Cat: Dounreay is a war crime

Dounreay warning


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 

Comments (13)

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  1. Barontorc says:

    If this news is to be taken as solid proof of imminent contamination to be caused by the de-commissioning process of Dounreay, it should not be left to these revelations by Rob Edwards and George Gunn to blow the whistle.

    I support this SNP Scottish Government to the hilt, but if it cannot, or will not, heavily intercede in this matter the game’s a proverbial bogey and they will not deserve to govern Scotland in independence.

    I hope to see some really rigid SG announcement forthwith regarding the plans of Babcock or whatever other carpet bagging contractor picks up this decommissioning shovel.

    If George Gunn is certain that a ‘war-crime’ has been perpetrated there has to be a process to follow that up.

    Given Wullie Rennie’s new penchant for dragging up anti-SNP material, recently vis-a-vis Lockerbie – let’s see what he’s prepared to do with a matter that strikes right at the heart of Liberal-seat country in Caithness. Where are you now Tavish Scott? We unfortunately know where Danny Alexander’s ensconced – but nary a whisper shall emanate from there.

  2. jake says:

    It seems a shame to dismantle such a nice big building; it’s quite unique and on that basis alone of some architectural merit and cultural and historical significance. There’s an argument for “listing” the structure and giving it a degree of statutory protection with a view to possible future alternative use. The complex could perhaps be remodeled internally to provide state of the art office accommodation and residences for future diplomatic missions from rUK. We could chuck it in as a freebie, a gesture of good faith and good will if you like, as part of the independence negotiations. The thick lead lined walls should re-assure the spooks and security wonks that their wee secrets will be quite safe, so safe in fact that they might feel confident they could take them to the grave.

  3. George Gunn says:

    I take it, jake, that your tongue is firmly in your cheek. However one ideas floated by the Atomic community in Caithness was that the Dounreay dome should become a listed building and be turned into a hotel etc until the NDA had to inform everyone that it was in fact so highly radio-active it was going to be cut up into squares the size of beer mats and buried in the ground at Buldoo. As to the local politicians the British state (scientific, military and political) has, since the 1950’s, always treated them as if they were annoying monkeys or simple children; to be patronised but not taken seriously. The current SNP government do not want to make a fuss about anything until after 2014. It is countries like Norway who will internationalise the criminal disregard to both humanity and the environment which is currently being undertaken on site at Dounreay.

    1. Hi George. Good article. I am interested in writing a Gaelic article about Dounreay myself as I have relatives from Thurso, one of whom you know. One of my relatives, my mother’s cousin’s mother died of leukaemia, and she lived in Thurso all her life. Would be good to do an interview with you.

  4. George Gunn says:

    dear eccossedugaelique, aye no problem. You can get my contact details from Kevin Williamson here at Bella

  5. Colin Punler says:

    For anyone seriously interested in the levels of radioactivity in effluent and emissions at Dounreay, the site’s application for a new authorisation can be read on the SEPA website. The application seeks limits on the total amount that can be discharged that are lower than those currently in place. While an increase has been sought for some waste streams to manage the next phase of cleaning up and closing down the site, most waste streams are lower than the current limits. When added together, the application seeks an overall reduction in the limits on how much can be discharged, and a consequent reduction in the impact on the environment and those living or working near the site. Our priority is to close down this site in a way that does not harm people or the environment and we believe this is reflected in the overall reduction being sought. One or two commentators have focussed on one or two waste streams and created an impression that the discharges from the site will increase. We have applied for an overall reduction in what we are currently permitted to discharge.

    Colin Punler
    Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd

  6. George Gunn says:

    How can an increase be a reduction?

  7. Colin Punler says:

    If the total cost of your weekly shopping basket falls, but the price of one particular item in the basket has increased, does that mean the cost of your shopping has gone up or down? We are seeking an overall reduction in the total limit on what the site can discharge. Increases in some waste streams are more than offset by reductions in others. The overall effect is a nett reduction in the total and therefore the total impact of the site’s decommissioning on the environment.

  8. George Gunn says:

    Ah, Colin, I remember when you were the scourge of the UKAEA and NIREX when you were a reporter on the Caithness Courier and the John O Groat Journal. You didn’t believe any of their pr crap then but now? Did you go down to the crossroads and make a Faustian pact with the powers of the darkness?

  9. Colin Punler says:

    Happy to discuss the issues you raise in your article, George. I’m really not interested in what people think about me personally. Attack the argument George, not the individual.

  10. George Gunn says:

    It’s not personal, Colin, I assure you. There are many stories you could tell about me I’m sure and we will always, I hope, discuss the issues. But there is a world of a difference in what you say, what is on the SEPA website and what Babcocks will do, as you know from experience. My concerns are based on history. Rob Edwards story is just another episode. All things being equal, evidence aside, company line aside, there are major issues over discharges from Dounreay which the public are never meant to understand, know about or see – even if they could – so we all have a duty to act responsibly. My issue is that despite the official line, the nuclear authorities have never acted responsibly and you know that. I expect nothing but the short term concern as to profit from Babcock. You can reassure all you like – after all, that is your job – but the road from the Dounreay site passes through SEPA and the Scottish Government and leads to London and after 60 years of misinformation, false agendas and down right lies, from the very beginning, it is hard in 2013 to see what actual long term benefit the UKAEA have brought to Caithness. My article was about justice, of dealing with the past and having some kind of future for the far North which has less to do with Dr Strangeglove and the fall out of war and more to do with what kind of society we actually want to live in, how are we gong to live in it and what kind of people we want to be. I know these are concerns of your as well.

  11. baronstreaty says:

    Is this site now part project Sunshine as to the effects of radation on humans due to its now being controled by an ouside body ie not the
    U.K. Atomic Energy Athourity !!!!

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