Dounreay: Sepa exemption bid after ‘cover up’

Richard Lochhead MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs. Picture: TSPL
Richard Lochhead MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs. Picture: TSPL
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The SNP Government has said it is to seize control of policing environmental breaches at all UK defence sites in Scotland.

Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead accused the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) of a “culture of secrecy” and a “cover-up” after it emerged last week that radioactive discharge had been found at the Vulcan naval test reactor at Dounreay in 2012.

UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the discharge was within existing limits and it was classified “Level 0” on the safety scale.

The Scottish Government now says it will bring forward proposals to remove the “Crown exemption” which means MoD sites are not subject to regulation by the Scottish environment Protection Agency (Sepa). This also means they have no power to enforce the MoD to take action where they have concerns.

Mr Lochhead told MSPs yesterday there is “no good reason” radioactive substances should be treated any differently from other risks to the environment.

“The secrecy and lack of transparency in this case is an abuse of the crown exemption,” he added. “Sepa can regulate and enforce action on radioactivity across the whole of the nation except for the areas covered by MoD establishments. That is a flawed and historic anomaly which has been of concern for some time, however, the latest incident and the culture of secrecy surrounding it are the final straw and the lack of transparency in this case is an abuse of the crown exemption.

“By removing Crown exemption Sepa will be able to regulate all of Scotland and in this situation they would have had the power to demand that action was taken rather than the MoD being able to withhold vital information.”

Sepa officials had been informed of the Dounreay incident towards the end of 2012, but were asked not to make it “more widely known for security reasons”.

UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond revealed last week that Britain’s oldest nuclear submarine, HMS Vanguard, is to have its reactor refuelled at a cost of £120 million after the test reactor was found to have a small internal leak of radiation.

Mr Hammond said the work was being carried out after “low levels of radioactivity were detected in a prototype core” at Dounreay in 2012.

First Minister Alex Salmond has already demanded an apology from David Cameron for failing to tell Scottish ministers about the problem.

But in a letter to the First Minister yesterday Mr Hammond said: “The issue is classified on the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) scale as a ‘Level 0’ incident with ‘no safety significance’. Sepa was informed.

“My officials, quite properly, made clear the classification of the information, but the MoD has no authority to stop Sepa informing Scottish ministers.

“Sepa took the decision, correctly in my view given the absence of any safety concern, that there was no issue that merited disclosure to Scottish ministers.”

Mr Hammond also warned Mr Salmond against raising the prospect that there was any danger to the public or the environment as a result of the problems with the reactor.

He said: “I’m sure you would not wish to alarm people unnecessarily by suggesting that already published figures, which only confirm that the plant operates well within its regulatory discharge limits, imply something different.”