Dounreay's Nuclear Smokescreen

By Riddoch, Lesley | New Statesman (1996), May 22, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Dounreay's Nuclear Smokescreen

Riddoch, Lesley, New Statesman (1996)

Lesley Riddoch asks why Georgia's spent fuel ended up at a plant that cannot handle it

Strange how a couple of unexpected events can ruin a perfectly good policy. Thanks to Sierra Leone, and now Indonesia, the "ethical foreign policy" that sounded so admirable now looks dead. Thanks to India and Pakistan the aspiration of nuclear non-proliferation looks shaky. And thanks to Dounreay Tony Blair and Robin Cook's high-minded masterplan to remove dangerous uranium from the hands of Soviet terrorists is looking like a naive blunder.

It's not simply that the site judged safe enough to store, process and reprocess the Georgian nuclear fuel has since been closed on safety grounds by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII), though that's embarrassing enough. Nor is it just that government ministers announced plans to reprocess the 0.8kg of spent fuel in the Georgian consignment regardless of the fact that Dounreay has been unable to reprocess anything for the past 18 months.

It's primarily because ministers, opposition politicians and even august organs such as this magazine failed to see through the emotional smokescreen of the gallant Soviet rescue mission.

Few people disagreed about the need to move the 5.1kg of highly enriched uranium from war-torn Tblisi. But even fewer seemed concerned about what happened to it afterwards. All of which played neatly into the hands of a Dounreay management team intent on reentering the business of nuclear reprocessing; a business the people of Caithness voted to halt three years ago, and a business the NII believes Dounreay is not currently equipped to handle.

In short it seems that Dounreay, the UK Atomic Energy Authority and its parent body, the Department of Trade and Industry, may have regarded the Georgian fuel as providing an opportunity to buy the necessary kit and receive the necessary safety consents to begin reprocessing again, despite public and professional misgivings.

So what actually happened? Was Tony Blair misled about Dounreay's safety record? Or did the heat of the moral crusade and the chance for another moment on the world stage blot out the logistical difficulties?

One thing is for sure: the timing of Georgian fuel deal was brilliantly ironic. As news broke from the US that Tony and Bill had brokered the humanitarian rescue of vulnerable uranium fuel supplies, a meeting was taking place at Dounreay between the NII, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and Dounreay management.

They had a lot to discuss. One reprocessing plant, codenamed D1206, wasn't working. The other, older D1204 had been idle from lack of work, and the Nil had already told Dounreay it would have to make a fresh safety case before it could reopen.

Campaigners believe the inspectors feared that with so many repairs, replacements and new bits of "kit" over the years, Dounreay management had been left with a hotchpotch of equipment that it might not even be able to list, let alone control.

So on the morning it was announced that the Georgian fuel was on its way, there was nowhere at Dounreay permitted to reprocess. Far worse, the Nil inspectors were on the site to deliver their quarterly report, in which they prohibited Dounreay from receiving any spent fuel on to the site, for storage or reprocessing.

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