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N-Base Briefing News October 2000

22nd October

Dounreay shortage means Vulcan waste for Drigg dump

Low-level radioactive waste from the Ministry of Defence's HMS Vulcan nuclear submarine reactor base may be taken to the Drigg dump in Cumbria, near to Sellafield, because there no room in facilities at the adjacent Dounreay complex. This brings the likelihood of radioactive waste transports from Caithness through the length of Scotland. It is estimated that up to 50 drums of low level waste will be taken from a temporary store at HMS Vulcan.

HMS Vulcan is operated by Rolls Royce for the MoD. It develops reactors for the UK's nuclear submarines and has been trying to solve long-standing problems in the reactors (See below). The reactor at Vulcan is the only one operating at the Caithness complex. Usually all wastes from HMS Vulcan are disposed of either in Dounreay stores, dumps or via liquid discharge facilities. However decommissioning and decontamination of polluted areas in and around Dounreay has filled the existing low-level pits. News of the proposal emerged following the formal advertisement of an application by the Ministry of Defence to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency for renew waste discharge permissions. As well as the usual list of national bodies and regional and local organisations being consulted, the list included Copeland Borough Council and Cumbria County Council - the local authorities for the Drigg dump.

As a military establishment Vulcan is not subject to the same regulatory controls as civil sites. Rather than SEPA issue an authorisation, as in civil sites, there is instead a 'Letter of Agreement' on the discharge of solid, liquid and gaseous radioactive wastes. Solid and liquid wastes are disposed of via the Dounreay waste pathways. Details of the application are only available from SEPA's office in Thurso and Dingwall and have not been published on SEPA's internet site.

More UK submarine problems

Urgent checks and repairs are to be carried out on all 12 of the UK's 'hunter-killer' nuclear submarines because of concerns of possible leaks from welds in the reactor cooling systems. The recall of the vessels follows inspection of HMS Tireless in Gibraltar, where she has been since May after a leak developed in her reactor cooling system. The problems with welds in the coolant system have proved to be more serious than first thought. All the submarines are powered by the PWR1 reactor, developed like the later PWR2 model at HMS Vulcan adjacent to Dounreay. Leaks in the coolant system has been a long-standing problems with the reactors and HMS Vulcan has carried out a GBP3 million programme in the mid-1990s to try and solve the problem. A number of the submarines are already in the Faslane or Devonport naval dockyards because of either other problems, or because of existing concerns over problem welds in the cooling systems which could result in a serious radioactive leak. The Ministry of Defence has admitted that a small amount of radioactive liquid was discharged into the Mediterranean as a result of the leak on HMS Tireless.

Sodium delays

Regulatory approval from Euratom is still awaited for the new plant built to deal with 1,500 tonnes of radioactive liquid sodium used to cool the Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR) and 57 tonnes in the Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR). The GBP17m plant was built in the turbine hall of the DFR by NNC Ltd and AEA Technology Ltd. The contaminated sodium will be treated to produce a salt residue which will be discharged into the Pentland Firth. The task presents serious problems because sodium ignites on contact with air or water. The Scottish Executive ruled that the new treatment plant and the waste receipt and characterisation facility at Dounreay must be subject to approval by the Euratom Treaty. The executive said that as well as approval from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency the plants and their environmental discharges must also be approved under Article 37 of the Euratom Treaty which relates to the possible international impact of discharges.

Radioactive soil

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is moving forward with a proposal to allow nuclear reactor operators to sell contaminated soil and ash for use in the construction of buildings and roads, golf courses and other commercial activities.

Call for more nuclear power

The Supporters of Nuclear Energy pressure group has told the UK prime minister Tony Blair that nuclear power is the only way to combat climate change and global warning.

BNFL still long way to go

Sellafield operators British Nuclear Fuels has still failed to meet a key requirement in a regulatory report on the plutonium fuel fake monitoring scandal. The key Nuclear Installations Inspectorate recommendation was that BNFL explain how and why senior managers knew monitoring data was being falsified but did nothing about it.

15th October

Future of plutonium fuel

The future of four tonnes of German-owned plutonium fuel stored at Dounreay was thrown into fresh confusion this week. The fuel was originally manufactured for an abandoned fast reactor in Germany. Part of the fuel, 82 elements, was transferred from a store in Belgium in 1991-92 to a specially constructed store at Dounreay, paid for by the German nuclear industry. At the time Dounreay hoped it would be allowed to use the fuel in its fast reactor but this was rejected by the government. The fuel is an embarrassment to Germany and there is a suggestion it could be transferred to the USA where the Department of Energy is considering using it in a high flux reactor to produce radioactive isotopes for medical use and plutonium for future space missions.

Last week Shetland MSP Tavish Scott asked Scottish environment minister Sarah Boyack about the future of the fuel and she said that while officials did not know of any plan to ship it to the USA, it was planned to return it to its owners in Germany. It had always been expected the fuel would be returned to Germany, if another use cannot be found for it elsewhere, as UK law prohibits the long-term storage or disposal or foreign waste, or fuel. The fuel has only been allowed to stay this long because of the initial idea of using it at Dounreay.

However a German environment ministry official quoted in the UK press at the weekend expressed surprise at the idea of the fuel being sent to Germany. "We are ending nuclear power in Germany. There is no place for more nuclear fuel in Germany", the spokesman commented. Dounreay intends returning the fuel next year unless an alternative is found. Germany's problem is the lack storage or disposal facilities and the wide-spread protests at any nuclear transports.

Nine out of 143

Politicians and environmental groups this week expressed concerns that only nine of the 143 recommendations made by the 1998 regulators safety audit of Dounreay have so far been complied with. Dounreay operators, the UKAEA, insisted this figure was not a true reflection of the progress made at the site and this was broadly accepted by regulators who said Dounreay was making reasonable progress. However, a Nuclear Installations Inspectorate's site inspector, Mr Brian Ross, said there were "some areas where we are pushing Dounreay to make more rapid progress".

The 143 recommendations are broken down into nine categories and the details of the ones already implemented are: Safety Management systems 1 completed out of 23 recommendations; Safety Culture 1 out of 16; Management and Organisation 1 - 23; Human Resources and Training 0 - 7; Safety Cases 0 - 28; Operational Strategy (Fuels) 0 - 6; Operational Strategy (Decommissioning) 0 - 18; Operational Strategy (waste) 2 - 21; Overall Management 1 - 1. Apart from the nine already implemented, another 25 proposals are awaiting completion by the UKAEA, 48 submissions from the UKAEA are being considered by the NII, and the UKAEA still has to present plans to the regulators for dealing with 64 recommendations - 48 per cent of the total. The full progress report is available on the internet at www.hse.gov.uk/nsd/

Decommissioning plan

The UK Atomic Energy Authority this week published its GBP4 billion decommissioning plan for Dounreay. Industry regulators insisted the plan was prepared because of its concerns over the management of the site and its decommissioning programme and displeasure at the timescale proposed by UKAEA. The new plan, entitled 'Planning the Future', involves the decommissioning over 50-60 years, twice as fast as first proposed. Although the plan's publication attracted considerable publicity it involved little new. The estimated cost of GBP4bn and the plans for the major tasks of emptying the waste shaft and silo plus the decommissioning of the site's reactors and reprocessing plants was already well known. One important omission was the future of the 25 tonnes of plutonium fuel at the site. This was the subject of a public consultation and the decision by the Department of Trade and Industry is still awaited. At the time of the consultation the UKAEA and DTI suggested a decision was needed for inclusion in the plan published this week. However, regulators pointed out the plan could be changed and adapted according to circumstances. The published plan, therefore, covered both the reprocessing of the fuel or its long-term storage, either of which will require substantial new facilities.

In addition a large number of new or improved facilities will be required at Dounreay and the list illustrates the scale of the task in decommissioning 50 years of nuclear activities: vitrification plant for high level wastes; intermediate level waste (ILW)treatment plants; ILW stores; shaft and silo headworks; low level waste facilities; fuel characterisation plant; carbide oxidation plant; active incinerator; highly active liquor storage facility; uranium recovery plant; vitrification product store. Over 20 new processing and waste treatment plants will be required over the next 15 years, a number of which might well raise strong planning and, or, environmental concerns. Another factor in the plan which is unknown is the timetable for the provision o national low-level, intermediate-level and high-level waste repositories. If none, or only some of these become available, the other wastes will have to be safety stored at Dounreay for many decades.

Jobs expansion

Decommissioning the Dounreay site and trying to clean up the waste and contamination from nearly 50 years operations is providing plenty of new job opportunities. The workforce at Dounreay is now over 2,000 for the first time since the mid-1980s. The UKAEA's drive to privatise as much work as possible in the 1990s saw its workforce drop to below 500. This trend resulted in serious safety concerns from regulators who said the UKAEA was losing effective control and management of the site. Now the UKAEA employs 1,016 workers at the site and the numbers of UKAEA and private workers is likely to increase further as the decommissioning programme gets into full-swing.

Highland complaint

The emergency planning officer for Highland Council, Mr Brian Downie, has complained about the lack of information concerning hazardous nuclear transports through the region. Mr Downie said that in 14 years work with the authority he had not been involved in any emergency planning or exercise concerning transports to or from Dounreay. Mr Downie expressed his concerns at a recent meeting of the Dounreay Local Liaison Committee where he heard of proposed waste transports from Sellafield and Winfrith to Dounreay where it is be treated as part of the decommissioning programme.

Plutonium dust monitoring

The Scottish Protection Agency apparently only found the unpublished second report by consultants on levels of plutonium in household dust in the homes of Dounreay workers after its researchers stumbled across it. SEPA then published it on its Internet Web site. SEPA has now asked Dounreay management to demonstrate that new measures, such as walk-through whole-body contamination monitors, are effective in preventing off-site contamination.

Nuclear health study published

Results of the second part of the British 'Nuclear Industry Family Study' have been published in the Lancet. Authored by Dr. Pat Doyle, Dr. Noreen Maconochie and colleagues from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine along with Dr. Eve Roman from the Leukaemia Research Fund, researchers studied over 27,000 pregnancies reported by male and female employees at nuclear establishments operated by the Atomic Energy Authority, Atomic Weapons Establishment and British Nuclear Fuels. They found that the 17,100 pregnancies whose fathers had been exposed to radiation before their conception were no more likely to end in fetal loss (miscarriage or stillbirth) or a baby with a serious birth defect than the 6,522 whose fathers had not.

They reported no evidence of any increase in risk of adverse outcomes with increasing dose of radiation by the father before conception. Researchers found a raised risk of early miscarriage or still birth both in mothers who had been monitored covering the period of conception and pregnancy and in those monitored some time before conception. Although these results were based on small numbers the authors said they "are equivocal and require further investigation", being of "....potential importance for women whose work involves exposure to ionising radiation." BNFL's Acting Director of Environment, Health and Safety, Dr. Roger Coates, said that the study gave significant reassurance to employees, and that the sheer weight of these investigations will conclude that occupational radiation exposure cannot be responsible for subsequent health effects in children.

A study on stillbirths by Newcastle University, partly funded by BNFL and published in the Lancet October '99, found that "a significant positive association" between the risk of a baby being stillborn and the father's total exposure to external ionising radiation before conception.

Scottish landfill study

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has published the results of a study from Galson Sciences Limited on the problem of radioactive tritium in landfill refuse sites in Scotland. As well as tritium in rainfall, it is found in gaseous tritium light sources, watches and clocks, compasses, electron tubes and other items, such as the Trimphone models used by British Telecom from 1964 to 1976. The survey looked at tritium levels in landfill sites at Ness Tip, Aberdeen; Braehead, City of Edinburgh; Summerston, City of Glasgow; Black Devon, Clackmannanshire; Riverside, Dundee; Birdston, East Dumbartonshire; Balbarton and Melville Wood, Fife; Longman, Highland; Dalmacoulter and Kilgarth, North Lanarkshire; Lower Polmaise, Stirling. These sites are all licensed by SEPA for the disposal of wastes containing very low levels of radioactivity. The highest levels were found in the Ness Tip (136 Br/l)and the Summerston Tip (275 Bq/l). The report recommends a more detailed sampling and monitoring programme and checks that discharged leachate is below recommended levels. In addition the report highlights problems concerning new regulations and the disposal of GTLDs such as 'exit' signs. The report can be found on SEPA's web site at this address

Cosmic radiation study

A three-year study is to be carried out into the risks from cosmic radiation for airline crews and passengers. The study will be carried out by the Civil Aviation Authority, the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, and the National Physical Laboratory. Virgin Atlantic Airline aircraft will carry detectors to measure radiation. A new European directive states all member countries must assess the risks of exposure to radiation for aircrews.

8th October

Wide-spread seabed pollution

Over a hundred new radioactive particles have been found by divers during a three-month survey of the seabed off Dounreay. A two-kilometre fishing ban was imposed in 1997 after the first seabed survey of sandbanks found 35 particles, a further 89 were found the following year and this year's work has resulted in another 100 particles being discovered. The Dounreay operators, the UKAEA, started the seabed surveys in response to pressure by regulators to find the source and extent of the radioactive particles which have been found on the Dounreay foreshore and nearby Sandside beach. These latest particles were found in the same areas where divers found particles on earlier surveys. The full extent of seabed contamination is not yet known as the existing work covers a relatively small area.

Plutonium dust causes a stir

The publication of the study revealing that there were higher levels of plutonium in the household dust of Dounreay workers has led to renewed calls for a re-opening of the investigation into increased levels of childhood leukaemia in Thurso, the nearest town to the nuclear complex. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency published the study on its web site at the end of September without any public announcement and it went un-noticed until details were given to subscribers in N-Base Briefing 247. Scotland Against Nuclear Dumping convener Lorraine Mann said the cancer investigation should be re-opened in the light of this new information on pollution in workers' homes.

BNFL fined

British Nuclear Fuels was fined GBP24,000 at Whitehaven Magistrates Court on Thursday after the company admitted four charges of breaking safety regulations concerning the management and storage of 1,613 'sealed radioactive sources' which are used for testing equipment at the nuclear complex. The prosecution was brought by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate after its officials in January 1999 found that one of the sources was missing. An Enforcement Notice was issued by the NII in March 1999 but the company failed to carry out the required work resulting in last week's court appearance.

Workers contaminated

Three workers carrying out decontamination work on the former B30 fuel storage plant at Sellafield have received raised radioactive exposure and were temporarily withdrawn from work in 'active' areas of the site.

Food given all clear

Officials from the Food Standards Agency have been testing milk and grass near the Sizewell B nuclear reactor in Suffolk after a "higher than normal" radioactive discharge last week. The agency said tests showed there was no risk to public health and the incident is being investigated by the Environment Agency for England and Wales.

Mutated wheat

The mutation rate of wheat grown in contaminated land around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine has been much faster than scientists expected. A scientific team from Switzerland, the UK and the Ukraine found six times the mutation rate they expected in wheat sown in contaminated land. Researchers said the rate of mutation was much higher than they expected from relatively low-level radioactive contamination.