Radioactive materials to be transported the full length of Scotland by train

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By John S. Jappy

Commencing some time this summer, cargoes of radioactive material will be transported from Dounreay to Sellafield by train.

These consignments will contain materials suitable for being used in the production of nuclear weapons.  It is therefore to be expected that armed guards will accompany each movement, as happened in the 1980s.

 

 

By John S. Jappy

Commencing some time this summer, cargoes of radioactive material will be transported from Dounreay to Sellafield by train.

These consignments will contain materials suitable for being used in the production of nuclear weapons.  It is therefore to be expected that armed guards will accompany each movement, as happened in the 1980s.

A total of about 50 journeys are proposed.  For security reasons the times of the trains will be kept secret.  

Whilst armed guards may be all that would have been appropriate in the 1980s, in 2012 there are far bigger dangers.  Whilst in the past, a tree felled across the rail track causing a derailment might have been considered the biggest danger, nowadays with an active threat from terrorism there is the chance that an attack may be carried out on the trains, such as explosives being placed on the line.  This could have disastrous consequences.   

If such a thing were to happen, whilst a nuclear explosion would not of course occur, if the sabotage happened in a densely populated area, there is a strong likelihood of widespread radioactive contamination.

Another concern, that of Rob Gibson SNP/MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, is whether the scarcely used rail line from Caithness to Inverness is fit enough to take these cargoes.

The materials concerned are those left over from the Dounreay Fast Breeder Reactor which closed in 1977.  The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority are anxious to get these to Cumbria as soon as possible, as the Magnox reprocessing plant there is due to close in 2016/2017.  

There are still 32 tonnes of “breeder materials” stuck inside the Dounreay reactor, which cannot be accessed until the last of the sodium coolant is extracted, which is scheduled to be completed by March 2013.  This was planned to have been done by September 2002, yet here we are in 2012 with 32 tonnes still stuck inside the reactor containing significant quantities of plutonium.  In all there are 109 tonnes of fuel still at Dounreay.

Some reprocessing of spent fuel was done in the past at Dounreay and transported to Sellafield from Scrabster harbour in a vessel called  the “Kingsnorth Fisher”.  The plutonium extracted was dissolved in acid and shipped in the form of plutonium nitrate, which was described in a Royal Commission safety report as “an exceedingly dangerous form in which to transport plutonium”.  

On one journey the Kingsnorth Fisher was struck by a storm in the Minches and suffered structural damage.  Had the vessel foundered the consequences would have been unthinkable.

The reprocessing planned will of course cause further pollution of the Irish Sea and disperse radioactivity throughout the environment contrary to one of the agreed key principles that “the unnecessary transport of radioactive wastes should be opposed, and managed on-site where produced (or as near to the site as possible) in a facililty that allows monitoring and retrieval of wastes and repackaging as necessary”.   

Why may we ask is reprocessing of spent fuel to extract plutonium still being done, considering that there are huge amounts of plutonium already around which will never be used for any purpose and could simply to classed as waste?

The answer to the question is a simple one.  If it is reclassified as waste, it will become a liability on the Treasury’s books.

Some useful references:

(1) NFLA Scotland’s Response to the Dounreay Site End State Consultation, January 2007

(2) Assessing the Risk of Terrorist Attacks on Nuclear Facilities, POST Report 222, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, July 2004.  See Box 3.2  

(3) “Not fuel and not waste – so what is it?” John O’Groat Journal 5 August 2011.