WORKERS at the Dounreay nuclear power complex on Scotland’s north coast plan strike action next month which will further delay the decommissioning of a plant which started operating in 1955.

The Prospect, Unite and GMB unions are all involved. The GMB, the main union for nuclear energy workers, champions alongside Scottish Labour proposals for new nuclear power stations in Scotland, despite widespread public opposition to them. The union also helps to fund Labour candidates.

The National: The nuclear plant under construction at Dounreay in 1956The nuclear plant under construction at Dounreay in 1956

While it is always disturbing to hear of industrial conflict at a nuclear plant, these strikes will in reality, relatively speaking, make little difference to the decommissioning process. Why?

Decommissioning began in 2019 and the plan envisages taking 50-60 years to complete. But “complete” doesn’t mean the same to the company responsible for the clean-up and demolition of Dounreay, Magnox Ltd, what it means to most of us, and the site will be under surveillance – ie, not usable – for at least 300 years.

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However, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, one of the most dangerous elements, left on the soil, Plutonium-239, has a half-life of 24,000 years.

How much will the decommissioning work cost? According to World Nuclear News in 2019, £400 million – but, five years later, the Northern Times newspaper earlier this month reported a figure of, £7.9 billion.

Leaving aside for the moment the appalling financial costs of nuclear decommissioning, rarely mentioned in Scottish Labour’s campaign material, what about the costs for the local people and the environment over the last nearly 70 years?

There have been three significant accidents and countless smaller ones. On May 10, 1997, a 65-metre (213ft) deep shaft at the plant was packed with radioactive waste with at least 2 kg of sodium and potassium. Seawater flooded in and reacted violently with the sodium and potassium, blowing the huge steel and concrete lids off the shaft.

The explosion littered the area with radioactive particles, with around 150 of these being found on the beach in the following 20 years. This was, according to the New Statesman in 1995, the worst nuclear accident ever in the UK. Dounreay was never prosecuted.

Between 1963 and 1984, tens of thousands of fragments of radioactive fuel escaped from the plant, resulting in fishing being banned up to one mile out from the shore. By 2011, more than 2300 radioactive particles had been recovered from the sea floor and more than 480 from the beaches.

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In May 1998, The Herald reported that a mechanical digger had cut through a main power cable and interrupted the site’s main and back-up electricity supplies for 16 hours.

The UK Health and Safety Executive and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency’s audit report on the incident is bone-chilling when you reflect upon the nature of the plant and the dangerous materials it worked with.

The main points of concern were:

  • Weak management and technical base due to organisational changes
  • Over-dependence on contractors
  • No comprehensive strategy for waste disposal
  • Lack of progress with decommissioning
  • Lack of integration of decommissioning and waste strategies
  • Poor physical condition of the plant
  • Scope of rapid reporting was too narrow
  • Failure to work to the standards required of a modern nuclear licensee.

Researchers based at Oxford University, reporting – conveniently for some political forces – in July 2014 revisited earlier studies of the incidence of leukaemia around Sellafield and Dounreay and concluded that children, teenagers and young adults currently living close to the facilities were not at an increased risk of developing cancers. 

The researchers, who were dependent upon UK Government grants for their survival, downplayed two earlier studies that found a raised risk of leukaemia among 0 to 14-year-olds and 15- to 24-year-olds living within 12.5km of Dounreay during the period 1979-84. A subsequent study in 1996 reported an excess of childhood leukaemia and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL) within 25 km of Dounreay for the period 1968-93.

The researchers do not tell us just how many cases, how many more children and young adults than expected, had developed these often-deadly cancers, but 1287 cases near seven nuclear sites in Scotland were looked at in the second study.

Around Dounreay, almost twice as many cases as expected were found. The difference was greatest around Dounreay. If we share the 1287 cases among the seven sites, we get around 180 cases near Dounreay, of which half or might not have occurred if the plant had never been built. To, me that’s “significant” and I feel sure it was for those young people and their families.

With every passing month, it becomes clearer that Scottish Labour must reconsider their plans for a nuclear Scotland.

Allan Dorans is the SNP MP for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock.