A north American environmental group is pleading for the UK not to dump Dounreay’s toxic nuclear waste in the US.
The plea follows a surprise announcement by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, at a nuclear summit in Washington last week that 700 kilograms of highly enriched uranium would be transported from the Caithness nuclear site to the US. It’s the largest shipment of its kind between the two countries.
The uranium comprises a mixture of radioactive powders, pellets and compounds mostly left by an old test reactor, which closed down in 1969. Part of a problematic group of so called “exotic fuels” at Dounreay, they were previously due to be sent to the Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria.
There are fears that the uranium could be stolen and made into radioactive dirty bombs by terrorists. Some could be already enriched to high enough levels to be used in nuclear weapons.
Cameron has said the uranium will be shipped to the US for processing in exchange for the US sending different material back to Europe to be made into medical isotopes. The deal, part of US President Barack Obama’s attempt to strengthen international nuclear security, was labelled a “win win” by Cameron’s spokesman.
That is not, however, how it is seen by some in the US. Tom Clements, director of Savannah River Site Watch in South Carolina, said: “In reality this is nuclear dumping”.
He argued that the UK as a nuclear weapons state should look after its own waste. “The US and UK must explain why they are engaged in commerce in nuclear weapons materials when, from a nuclear non-proliferation perspective, this material would best be left in the UK,” he said.
“While the clean-up of the Dounreay site is essential, the UK can manage the clean-up of its own nuclear sites and not involve the US government.”
Obama’s nuclear security summit was presented to the world as if it were about securing materials that posed a risk, Clements argued. “But this deal with Dounreay affirms that the summit was manipulated to also be about nuclear dumping.”
Clements pointed out that the US already provides uranium for medical isotope reactors, and has a large stockpile. There was likely to be “little connection” between the Dounreay shipment and exports to Europe, he claimed.
The summit was manipulated to also be about nuclear dumping. Tom Clements, Savannah River Site Watch
It was initially thought that the uranium would go to the Savannah River Site, but this has now been denied by the US government. Clements said that it might end up at Nuclear Fuel Services, a subsidiary of BWX Technologies in Tennessee.
His concerns were echoed by environmentalists in Scotland. “Swapping batches of dangerous nuclear materials across the Atlantic makes no sense at all,” said Dr Richard Dixon, the director Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“While the UK has cleverly managed to offload some of our problem waste, communities in the US will have to bear the added risk to them from our waste. This deal isn’t safe and it isn’t fair to communities here or in the States.”
Tor Justad, who chairs Highlands Against Nuclear Transport, claimed that transporting the uranium from Dounreay posed a risk of terrorist attack. “Security risks are at their highest level for many years,” he said.
“IS and other terrorist organisations are known to have an interest in nuclear materials to make dirty bombs and non-essential staff in a Belgian nuclear plant were sent home due to a risk of terrorist attack.”
According to a 2013 report by the UK government’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), there are about 100 tonnes of various radioactive wastes at Dounreay. Some 26 tonnes of that are characterised as exotic fuels.
About 1,000 kilograms of those fuels are “unirradiated high enriched uranium fuel”, which is likely to include the 700 kilograms destined for the US. It “has a wide range of enrichment values, presenting operational and disposability difficulties”, said the NDA report.
It is not known how the uranium will be transported, though there have been rumours locally of proposed flights from Wick airport. They were raised by the SNP Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, in parliament in December.
IS and other terrorist organisations are known to have an interest in nuclear materials to make dirty bombs Tor Justad, Highlands Against Nuclear Transport
At the same time The Ferret reported a secret plan to transport five kilograms of weapons grade uranium from Dounreay to the Savannah River Site by sea. The material had been removed from the former Soviet republic of Georgia in a major security operation in 1998.
The US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration stressed that it was working with other countries to eliminate excess nuclear material to make the world a safer place. “The highly enriched uranium that is located at Dounreay is excess, unirradiated uranium that cannot be used to make medical isotopes but can be used in other applications – such as fuel for commercial power reactors,” said a spokesman.
“The uranium will be sent to a secure facility in the United States where it will be stored until it is downblended to low enriched uranium. While we cannot provide details on our nonproliferation operations due to security restrictions, the destination for this highly enriched uranium is not the Savannah River Site.”
An earlier version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 3 April 2016.
Photo thanks to Nuclear Fuel Services.