Scottish Secretaries kept in dark over Dounreay radiation leak


  By Sean Martin
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has received more criticism from the SNP following revelations he did not inform successive Scottish Secretaries about the radiation leak at the UK Government’s Vulcan Reactor Test Establishment at Dounreay in January 2012.
The radioactive incident has instigated significant political conflict between the Scottish Government and their Westminster counterparts since it was revealed Hammond did not inform them about it until shortly before his House of Commons address on 6 March – more than two years after the event.

Evidence then emerged that Dounreay locals were also kept in the dark, while the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) were told about the leak – which is thought to have been caused by a “microscopic breach” in the metal cladding surrounding one of the fuel elements within the submarine reactor’s core – in October 2012 but were instructed by the Ministry of Defence that the information was strictly on a need to know basis.

It has now been revealed that former Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore and current Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael were not told of the incident either.  Moore was not informed until eight months after the leak – despite making a personal visit shortly after it happened.  Carmichael, who assumed his post in October 2013 following a cabinet reshuffle, was told five months after starting the job.
Angus Robertson, the SNP leader in Westminster and defence spokesperson, condemned the way Hammond has handled the matter, posing the question: “Just what else is the MoD hiding from its Ministers and the public?”

He added: “Shockingly, the ‘need to know’ basis for this nuclear incident did not even extend to the Secretary of State for Scotland for a full eight months after the event, despite the Defence Secretary claiming ‘key Ministers’ were ‘aware of these issues throughout’.  If the Secretary of State for Scotland is not a ‘key minister’ when there is a radioactive incident in Scotland then who is?”

Hammond initially responded to questions in the Commons over his judgement not to inform them, the Scottish Government or either Scottish Secretaries until after a substantial period of time by insisting the incident did not present any safety risk. 

“Low levels of radioactivity are a normal product of a nuclear reaction that takes place within the fuel, but they would not normally enter the cooling water,” he said in the Commons.  “Against the International Atomic Energy Agency’s measurement scale for nuclear-related events this issue is classed Level 0, described as ‘below scale – no safety significance.”

However, the Radioactivity in Food and the Environment reports, which SEPA co-publishes with the Environment Agency and the Food Standards Agency, contradicted Hammond’s claims.  The study showed a tenfold spike in radioactive noble gas discharges from Vulcan NRTE in 2012, while also concluding that the radioactive emissions from the plant increased from 4% of the authorised limit in 2011 to 43% the next year.

Environmentalists criticised the Defence Secretary following this revelation, with the director of Friends of the Earth, Dr Richard Dixon, saying Hammond had “some very serious questions to answer” and calling for someone to be held responsible.

Dr Dixon added: “He categorically stated that no radioactivity was released to the environment, we now know that is definitely not true.  Either the MoD misled him or he misled the House of Commons. Either way, someone should be losing their job.”