Reactor leak rose radioactive emissions tenfold

The UK government admitted there was a leak at the test reactor near Dounreay. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The UK government admitted there was a leak at the test reactor near Dounreay. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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A LEAK at a test nuclear reactor in Caithness that the Defence Secretary last week claimed had caused no environmental pollution led to a tenfold rise in radioactive gas emissions, official figures reveal.

The figures from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) came after Philip Hammond admitted to MPs on Thursday that there was a leak from the test reactor at HMS Vulcan near Dounreay.

Opposition MPs yesterday demanded an inquiry and First Minister Alex Salmond accused the Ministry of Defence of subverting democracy.

Mr Hammond’s statement on Thursday was the first time the UK government had admitted to a problem with the reactor, which is a test version of the ones used in the Vanguard and Astute class submarines. But he insisted there had been “zero risk” to the public and environment from the problems.

He told MPs there had been “no measurable change in the radiation discharge” from the site. “That is the important point for people living in those communities,” he said.

However, official figures show that emissions of the gases to the atmosphere rose from 0.19 gigabecquerels of radioactivity in 2011 to 2.16 Gbq in 2012. Mr Salmond said: “This is a flagrant abuse of Crown immunity, and shows total contempt for parliament and subverts the democratic accountability of Scotland.”

Meanwhile, Scottish environment secretary Richard Lochhead said he would make a statement on the leak to Holyrood tomorrow. He said: “There must be complete openness and transparency on any nuclear related incident of this nature that relates to activities on Scottish territory given the potential environmental impact.

“It is therefore totally unacceptable for the UK government to keep the Scottish people, the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government in the dark on the incident at Dounreay’s Vulcan establishment. I plan to raise our concern in a statement to the Scottish Parliament this week.”

He added: “It is important that the public and Scottish Parliament are kept informed and it is unacceptable for the Ministry of Defence to put Sepa in such a difficult position once they were eventually notified by asking them not to make information about this situation more widely known for security reasons.”

Opposition politicians have also called for a UK parliamentary inquiry into the handling of the radiation leak. Public confidence has been damaged by the incident, according to Labour shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker and shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran.

They said there were “significant questions” about the handling of the incident, particularly the two-year delay in making it public.

In a letter to MP James Arbuthnot, Tory chairman of the Defence Select Committee, they said: “It is critical the public, particularly those who live close to facilities in Dounreay, have complete confidence in the safety regime that is in place.”

An MoD spokesman said: “Sepa was not ordered to withhold information from the Scottish Government and it is absolutely wrong to suggest otherwise. Having been told about the situation, Sepa themselves chose not to inform ministers based on their expert view that the local community and environment is not at risk.”