Dounreay radioactive seabed can never decontaminated

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by a Newsnet reporter

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has announced that the seabed surrounding the Dounreay nuclear plant may never be realistically returned to its original pre-nuclear natural state. 

Radioactive fragments from aluminium-uranium fuel rods being reprocessed at Dounreay should have gone to storage pools with other waste awaiting solidification; instead, they entered the plant’s drains and then into the diffuser system, ending up on the seabed around the plant.

Sepa specialists say that on balance the radioactive particles should only be removed where it is practical – the invasive radioactive particle removal methods can do more harm than good to local marine ecosystems and the wider environment.

A Sepa spokesman said: “It is now widely accepted that a literal return to a pristine condition is a far from simple or even achievable concept.  Trying to achieve it might also cause more harm than good, there is the potential that ecosystems may be destroyed on trying to get to something which does not pose a significant hazard.”

In the 1960s and 1970s the Caithness plant is thought to have released thousands of irradiated/radioactive nuclear fuel particles into the local seabed – approximately 2300 have so far been recovered from the seabed.

A 2km fishing exclusion zone was instigated in the seas around the plant after 34 radioactive particles were discovered on the seabed in 1997.  At the time the exclusion zone was first enforced, no UK legislation existed to deal with radioactively contaminated land.  Sepa demanded the surrounding seabed be returned back to its original ‘pristine state’.

In 2007 the UK Atomic Energy Authority, responsible for Dounreay when the fuel rod particles were dispersed out onto the seabed, was fined £140,000 for the release of radioactive particles and dumping radioactive waste.

It was agreed up to £25million would be spent on cleaning the surrounding seabed – remotely operated vehicles would scour the seabed area to locate and remove the radioactive particles.

Some critics of the Dounreay operation believe radioactive particles are still coming from the plant.

Worryingly, 481 particles have been recovered onshore – primarily from the Dounreay foreshore but also critically from the nearby Sandside beach, which is open to the general public.

In July, it emerged that 10% of the radioactive particles recovered from the seabed near the nuclear power station could pose a “significant health risk” to humans.

The announcement by Sepa that the clean up process be limited to where it does more good than harm is in stark contrast to its demand in 1997 that the seabed be returned to its original pre-nuclear ‘pristine state’.