Halt called to Dounreay decommissioning work

The surprise shutdown followed an internal probe into a sodium fire at the site four months ago. Picture: TSPL
The surprise shutdown followed an internal probe into a sodium fire at the site four months ago. Picture: TSPL
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A HALT was called on all decommissioning work at the Dounreay nuclear plant in Caithness to allow the completion of a safety review.

The surprise shutdown followed an internal investigation into a sodium fire at the site four months ago.


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The embargo, which applied to everything but safety work, was implemented at lunchtime on Wednesday by site licence company Dounreay Site

Restoration Limited (DSRL).

However, a DSRL spokeswoman said yesterday: “Work to dismantle the experimental nuclear plant at Dounreay is restarting after a site-wide pause.

“Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd stopped work temporarily while staff checked their working practices against procedures designed to protect people and the environment from harm.

“The site-wide pause and revalidation exercise is an integral part of a long-term safety improvement programme launched recently following a downturn in safety performance.”

The sodium fire brought criticism of procedures at the nuclear plant.

Dounreay’s on-site regulators, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), found that the incident in the sodium tank farm within the prototype fast reactor complex on 7 October indicated “a poor compliance culture and unacceptable behaviour of personnel on site”.

It served DSRL with a formal improvement notice, requiring remedial action.

ONR yesterday revealed it was not behind the shutdown. “ONR did not have anything to do with the decision to instigate a site pause,” said a spokesman.

“The licensee (DSRL) made the decision.”

The internal probe started as a “level two” investigation, headed by senior DSRL fuel cycle area manager Steve Beckitt, but was subsequently upgraded to a “level three” probe overseen by DSRL managing director Mark Rouse.

Davie Alexander, chairman of the joint trade union group at Dounreay, said any procedures to improve safety at the site are welcome. “There’s been a safety shutdown at the site due to the consequences of various incidents, with the company taking the decision after the sodium fire at PFR that processes needed to be sorted,” he said.

“The unions have raised concerns about certain incidents which have taken place regarding safety and have made representations to the company.

“Appropriate action has now been taken and hopefully the site can now move forward.”

Dounreay Stakeholder Group chairman David Flear was notified of the shutdown by Mr Rouse and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA)

Dounreay head of programme Nigel Lowe on Monday.

He said it was regrettable but necessary to rectify problems with safety procedures and processes on site.

“When the sodium fire took place, a lot of other things came to light and management felt the need to look through safety procedures,” he said.

“The sodium fire has been the catalyst to review all policies and procedures and the review will take as long as necessary until officials are confident processes and procedures are fit to go ahead.”

Local MP John Thurso also welcomed the review.

He said: “I am a big supporter of Dounreay and feel it is important to take action. A great deal of the activities will be back up and running in hours and days but some may be more complex.

“It is better action is taken now and everything gets back on course rather than have further problems in the future. This action should reassure the workforce and all other stakeholders.”

The report findings are likely to remain confidential, though it is thought they centred on a mismatch between operating instructions for the tank farm and how it was being operated in practice.

An insider at the plant said: “There had been changes in the working methods but the paperwork hadn’t been updated to reflect that.

“It was a tick-the-box exercise, which just wasn’t good enough – it was a train crash waiting to happen.”

The current exercise involves an audit of all the former fuel and waste plants within the fuel cycle area. The inquiry resulted in a supervisor being demoted.


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