Radioactive rabbits (NENIG Briefing)

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News from NENIG (Northern European Nuclear Information Group)
UK: Radioactive rabbits and annual report on nuclear industry discharges

from N-BASE BRIEFING 378, 28th June 2003

Dounreay News: Radioactive rabbits

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency has issued an enforcement notice on Dounreay to stop rabbits and other wildlife gaining access to the site's low-level waste pits. The fear is wildlife might come into contact with the waste and spread the contamination outwith the site. The notice was issued after a safety inspector saw a rabbit in the waste area and investigation showed rabbits had been burrowing into two of the waste pits which are surrounded by a six foot high chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire.

Dounreay operator, the UKAEA, is seeking advice from animal welfare groups on culling rabbits and other wildlife should this be necessary. A UKAEA spokesman commented: "We've spent millions of pounds trying to deter terrorists and we've possibly overlooked the rabbits."

While this comment reflects the general whimsical tone of media coverage, the issue is important - and shows again the inadequacy of regulation and management.

For all the expertise of regulators and management, it seems the effects of wildlife on nuclear sites was not considered until fairly recently. Alarm bells started ringing at Sellafield a few years ago when a house used as a bird sanctuary had its whole garden condemned as low-level radioactive waste because of pigeons and other birds that regularly landed or nested either on or even in facilities at Sellafield. After this regulators looked at the whole issue and found foxes and other wildlife regularly gained access to the complex.

The ability of wildlife to enter such highly contaminated sites as Sellafield and Dounreay raises worrying issues, as they have the potential for spreading contamination over a wide area. What seems strange is that after the scares at Sellafield there wasn't an urgent review at Dounreay and other sites - instead of an inspector happening to notice rabbit droppings during a routine visit.

Soil storage

Dounreay has opened its D6500 storage facility for spoil excavated during major construction work at the complex. The spoil will be re-used for landscaping.

Holes sealed

Work has finished sealing the two deep boreholes drilled at Dounreay in the early 1990s when the area was being investigated as a possible site for a national nuclear waste dump.

OSPAR compromises: Annual nuclear waste reports

The annual exercise by the main European nuclear states - the UK and France - to delay or defuse attempts at the OSPAR Convention to strengthen controls on nuclear industry discharges into the sea continued at this month's ministerial meeting in Bremen. The UK this year was less successful that it might have hoped and the final outcome has again reduced its room to manoeuvre and increased international pressure on Sellafield.

Two main issues on radioactive discharges before the OSPAR environment ministers this week in Germany were - international opposition to discharges of Technetium-99 from Sellafield and the interpretation of a 1998 agreement to reduce radioactive pollution to "close to zero" by 2020.

The UK hoped to avert further arguments over Tc-99 discharges by announcing a nine-month moratorium on discharges just as delegates were gathering for the Bremen meeting. (See Briefing 376) Nine months is the time Nirex estimates it should take British Nuclear Fuels properly to evaluate and develop a technology to store the Tc-99 on land rather than pump it into the Irish Sea. While the move was welcomed by the chief critics - Norway and Ireland - it could leave the UK and environment minister Margaret Beckett with a major problem in March 2004. Either she announces that Tc-99 can now be stored and the moratorium becomes a permanent ban - or she has to explain to the international community that discharges are going to resume.

At this week's OSPAR meeting the UK tried to stop any reference to Tc-99 in the final ministerial declaration, but they failed to prevent a proposal from Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden to include this statement in the declaration:

"We note the concerns expressed by a number of Contracting Parties about discharges of technetium-99 from Sellafield and their view that these discharges should cease immediately. We welcome the recent initiative of the United Kingdom to request the operator of Sellafield to stop discharges from the MAC treatment process for the next nine months while further research and development of abatement technology is carried out. We look forward to the introduction of such technology to treat remaining MAC if it proves to be technically feasible."

When 'zero' starts

The other disagreement centred on what baseline to use when deciding on criteria for 'close to zero'. The UK and France wanted to use the discharge levels from 1993-2001, whereas their opponents - in particular Norway, Ireland, Iceland and Greenpeace - wanted to use 1996-2001 because this covered a period when discharges were lower, therefore setting a lower baseline level. The UK favoured starting in 1993 because that included years of higher discharges.

The eventual compromise, to use 1995-2001 as the baseline years, was forced on the UK and France by the Nordic countries and the Netherlands and means a lower baseline level and makes continued reprocessing at Sellafield harder to justify.

Oil industry's contribution

Much to the nuclear industry's delight, the final declaration also included a section on radioactive pollution from non-nuclear sources, which will now be included in the OSPAR policy on reducing emissions by the year 2020. The main culprits are the North Sea offshore oil and gas industries.

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