By Chris Rumbles
MSPs will have to wait to learn more about the Dounreay radiation leak after UK Environment Secretary Owen Paterson cancelled his scheduled appearance at the Scottish Parliament this Wednesday.
The Conservative MP for North Shropshire was due to attend the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee session where it was expected that he would be asked to further explain the low levels of radioactivity detected at Dounreay, Caithness, in January 2012.
Last week UK Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond informed the House of Commons that the cooling waters around the prototype submarine reactor at Vulcan Naval Reactor Test Establishment showed evidence of a radiation leak. It is thought the leak was caused by a “microscopic breach” in the metal cladding surrounding one of the fuel elements within the reactor’s core.
The incident, however, has resulted in a charged political confrontation as the Scottish Government was not told about the radiation problem until shortly before Mr Hammond addressed the Commons last week, two years after it took place.
Both the Independent Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency were notified in 2012, with the latter being requested by the MoD to keep information “on a strict need to know basis for security reasons” and, because the radioactivity was within safe limits, they did not tell the Scottish Government.
Despite claims from the MoD that there was “no measurable change in the radiation discharge”, it has emerged that the Radioactivity in Food and the Environment reports, which SEPA jointly publishes with the Environment Agency and the Food Standards Agency, show a tenfold spike in radioactive noble gas discharges from Vulcan NRTE in 2012. The reports show radioactive emissions from Vulcan NRTE increased from 4% of the authorised limit in 2011 to 43% of that limit in 2012.
First Minister Alex Salmond has written to Prime Minister David Cameron to request an apology for the Scottish Government being kept in the dark on the Dounreay matter for over two years. In the letter the First Minister said that, in devolved areas such as the environment, the UK government had an “unarguable responsibility to share information”.
The event in Dounreay has led to the Defence Secretary taking the decision to refuel the nuclear reactor in HMS Vanguard, one of the UK’s 4 ballistic missile submarines, because of new concerns raised over its operating life.
Speaking in the Commons last week, Mr Hammond explained the response to Dounreay: “When the coolant radioactivity was first detected, the reactor was shut down as a precaution. Following investigations and a series of trials, and with the agreement of the relevant regulator, the reactor was restarted in November 2012 and is continuing to operate safely.”
SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, Rob Gibson, said he was disappointed to learn of the Environment Secretary’s dropout:
“It would have been an opportunity to shine some more light on what happened at Dounreay and establish what – if anything – Owen Paterson’s department was told by the MoD about the incident.
“We need answers over just how far the MoD’s cover up spread and Owen Paterson’s appearance would have been a fortuitous opportunity to help establish that.”