AEA fined £4,000 over Dounreay radwaste imports

AEA Technology has been fined £4,000 for illegally importing five shipments of radioactive waste from Germany for treatment at the Dounreay nuclear facility. The case was the troubled site's first prosecution for an environmental offence - but AEA may face further charges for operating a treatment process in breach of a prohibition notice.

AEA Technology took over several key activities at Dounreay when the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) was partially privatised in 1996. The contracting out of safety and waste management responsibilities to bodies such as AEA was recently identified by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate as a key factor in the site's poor safety record (ENDS Report 283, p 9 ).

One of AEA's activities was a new treatment plant to dispose of radioactive sodium coolant from the site's own reactors. However, AEA also sought to develop a business in treating imported sodium.

In October 1996, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) discovered that some 89 tonnes of sodium coolant from a German reactor had arrived at Dounreay in five shipments over the preceding summer. SEPA had not been notified of the shipments in advance. Nor had it been notified of the shipments within 15 days of their arrival, as required under 1993 regulations on transfrontier shipment of radioactive waste which implemented a 1992 Euratom Directive.

Under the Directive, a producer of radioactive waste must seek consent from the authorities in the country of origin, which will then seek the receiving state's agreement to the consignment. However, the German waste producer did not seek consent, and the German authorities have not taken any enforcement action against it. The producer later claimed that Dounreay had told it that approval was not needed because the material in question was not classed as radioactive waste.

AEA appeared before Wick Sheriff Court on 20 November. It pleaded guilty to failing to notify SEPA of the receipt of the shipments, in breach of the 1993 regulations. The company was fined £4,000 - a relatively large fine for an environmental offence in Scotland (ENDS Report 285, p 51 ).

After the trade with Germany came to light, SEPA authorised further shipments. It imposed a range of conditions - including a requirement that radioactive wastes from the treatment process be returned within ten years.

However, in summer 1997 - when the first batches of German sodium were being put through the treatment plant - SEPA served AEA with a prohibition notice requiring it to cease operating the process. The notice, which is still in force, was imposed because of inadequate release monitoring and process management.

Last November, a sodium fire occurred in the plant while it was being used to treat some of Dounreay's own waste sodium - even though the prohibition notice was still in force. SEPA has referred the matter to the Procurator Fiscal.

Despite the Dounreay site's rapidly growing list of environmental and safety breaches, the latest case is only its second prosecution. In January, UKAEA was fined £2,000 after four workers inhaled radioactive dust. The NII has since submitted a report to the Procurator Fiscal concerning another alleged incident in which workers ingested plutonium dust.

  • On 18 November, Energy Minister John Battle used a "fact-finding" visit to Dounreay to present a safety award to UKAEA. The award, to level 5 on the 10-tier International Safety Rating System, followed an audit by DNV.

    Mr Battle's decision to associate himself with a safety award to Dounreay has raised a few eyebrows. His visit preceded UKAEA's response to the NII's damning safety report as well as key decisions on whether to restart reprocessing and waste treatment activities at the works. Moreover, a recent parliamentary inquiry revealed that UKAEA and DTI officials had apparently kept Mr Battle in the dark about serious safety shortcomings at Dounreay (ENDS Report 282, pp 25-27 ).

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