Radioactive waste dumped in UK landfill

The company responsible for cleaning up after the British nuclear industry has admitted dumping radioactive waste in a Scottish landfill and failing to take adequate precautions to stop it entering the environment.

The UK Atomic Energy Authority was this week convicted of four charges under the Radioactive Substances Act 1960 at Wick Sheriff Court.

The charges relate to disposing of nuclear waste from Dounreay at a landfill during a 12 year period in the ’60s and ’70s. The second charge was tied to the failure to address erosion of the coastal landfill which led to fragments of radioactive fuel being discharged into the environment between 1963 and 1984.

The third and fourth related to the pumping of fragments from a storage pond into a surface water drain between 1963 and 1967 and washing waste from a spill down conventional drains in November 1965.

The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency began to compile the case after radioactive particles were found on a beach adjacent to the site, Sandside, and on the local seabed.

A total of 1401 radioactive fragments have been recovered by the agency.

An extensive investigation involving close scrutiny of the company’s records and interviews with employees past and present has tried to uncover the origin of the fuel particles.

SEPA’s chief executive Campbell Gemmell said the case clearly highlighted that while there have been problems in the past, that pollution is avoidable.

“This outcome serves as a valuable lesson to UKAEA and others that poor waste management practices will not be tolerated. Our message to everyone that we regulate is that we will help you to do the right thing.

“However, if you don’t take your responsibilities seriously, we will take strong action.”

Trying to put quell public safety fears, he said that the company appeared to have learnt from past mistakes.

“UKAEA has cleaned-up its act significantly and is making strenuous efforts to safely dismantle the Dounreay site, which is no easy job,” he told the media.

“As part of our commitment to better regulation we will support them in doing this, as we support other operators who are serious about the environment. However, we are still the watchdog on behalf of the public. I sincerely hope that we do not need to use our powers again, but we will do so if that is necessary.”

Hugh Fearn, a specialist in radioactivity for SEPA, gave a detailed explanation of how the charges came about and exactly how the environment had been threatened.

“Radioactive liquid waste was and still is disposed of from Dounreay to the sea at the Pentland Firth via a long outfall,” he said.

“An authorisation was put in place in 1963 requiring that the authority use all reasonable practicable means to prevent the discharge of particulate matter effluent.

“However, on occasions this wasn’t adhered to and no filtering process was in place to remove solid waste, resulting in a discharge of particles to the sea.

“The majority of the particles recovered have come from materials test reactor fuel elements which were dismantled in water filled ponds.

“Landfill 42, which contains building rubble and excavated material, was subjected to wave erosion during heavy tides between 1963 and 1975.

“Remedial work was required by SEPA at the time. Of the material pulled back from the danger of further erosion by the sea, 43 cubic metres proved to be radioactive waste and included six radioactive fuel fragments.

“The nature of the radioactive contamination has lasting consequences for the future and this is something which will need to be addressed by the polluter, UKAEA.”

Sentencing is due to take place on Thursday, February 15.

Sam Bond

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