Scots laird facing ruin after Dounreay nuclear blast

The Dounreay plant in Thurso, Caithness. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The Dounreay plant in Thurso, Caithness. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Have your say

A PROMINENT Scots estate owner faces bankruptcy following a long-running legal battle over radioactive contamination of his land by the operators of the Dounreay nuclear plant.

Geoffrey Minter, the laird of Sandside in Caithness, faces losing his 10,000-acre estate after a panel set up by the government to assess financial compensation only awarded him a fraction of the amount he believed he was due.

Geoffrey Minter, pictured on his land

Geoffrey Minter, pictured on his land

Minter made a claim for millions of pounds after a series of radioactive particles attributed to an underground explosion in a storage pit in the 1970s were discovered on the foreshore of his estate, leading to a decline in the value of the land close to the former nuclear power station on the Pentland Firth coast. He has also spent tens of thousands of pounds on legal fees fighting his case over the last 14 years.

He was forced to put his company, Magnohard, into administration earlier this year when his bank foreclosed on it after a panel of surveyors set up to arbitrate between him and plant operators UKAEA (United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority) determined he should only receive a portion of the millions he was expecting.

Government ministers have now been asked to review the compensation award amid “serious concerns” about the panel’s verdict. Last week, the government’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority awarded an engineering consortium a £1.6 billion contract to finally clean-up Dounreay and any contamination it has left – a sum which dwarfs the compensation made available to Minter.

A friend of Minter, who bought the estate in 1990, said the panel’s decision had been “devastating” for him and his family. “This has been a shameful business. First, Dounreay pollutes Sandside beach with hundreds of radioactive particles. Then it drags its feet over reaching a fair settlement and clean-up plan, then it eventually bleeds Geoffrey dry and drives him into bankruptcy.”

James Stephen, the administrator put in charge of Magnohard, believes the panel undervalued the compensation due.

In a letter to the coalition’s Energy Secretary Ed Davey, Stephen has questioned whether the panel was properly constituted and accused it of making a decision based on what he described as “wrong assumptions”.

The dispute dates back to 1977 when an explosion underground near Dounreay released nuclear contamination into the environment. Details of the explosion were concealed from the public until 1996 but, from 1984, tiny radioactive particles were being washed up on the private beach on Sandside estate. The Dounreay Particles Advisory Group (DPAG) has estimated that thousands of particles have been accidentally discharged. Some of the particles have been described by experts as being large enough to pose a significant health risk but the Scottish Environment Protection Agency says the risk to the public is minimal.

After years of dispute, an independent panel was finally set up in 2010 but it was beset with problems.

In the summer of 2011, its report was delayed and then its chairman died and was not replaced, leaving two members. Then in October last year the new chairman suffered a stroke, leaving the panel with just one member, who refused to chair it. A new chairman was then drafted in on 30 November and, just eight days later on 8 December, a determination was issued.

The decision opened the way for the government to award the demolition and clean-up contract on Dounreay to the Babcock Dounreay Partnership, which was unveiled last Monday.

In his letter to the minister, Stephen has questioned whether the panel was properly constituted as it was never brought back to its full complement of three.

However, he claims the panel also failed to take advice on the active lifespan of the nuclear waste involved, stating that it was just 30 years instead of the correct 300 years. “Obviously this makes a big difference in the level of compensation,” Stephen said. “It is an assumption that the panel has made and it is wrong.”

He has also questioned why the panel believed potentially lucrative salmon fishing rights on the estate had no value. “Since I have been handling Magnohard there have been two expressions of interest in the salmon fishing rights,” he said.

He added: “I have asked the minister to look at these points to review the determination because it seems to be flawed.”

The friend added: “The blunders by the adjudicating panel are schoolboy errors and torpedo any pretence that this dispute has been honourably settled. Not knowing the half life of these particles is 300 years, ten times longer than assumed by the panel, is an appalling mistake and completely wrecks the panel’s judgement of the scale of Geoffrey’s loss.

“Sandside beach will remain contaminated for years to come.”

Dounreay closed as a nuclear power station in 1994. The Babcock Dounreay partnership, a joint venture UK/US venture between Babcock, CH2M Hill and URS, will now take control of Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd (DSRL) to begin the final stages of the clean-up operation, including the removal of the site’s landmark dome.

The site consists of three nuclear reactors, fuel reprocessing plants, laboratories and various waste facilities, all a legacy of the site’s 20th-century role as Britain’s centre of fast reactor research and development.

A spokesman for the DECC said: “This is a matter for the parties to resolve. It would not be appropriate for the Government to become directly involved.”