I’ve been going up to Scotland for years, love the place, but one thing always worried me and that’s the Nuke station at Dounreay. It isn’t without good reason either.
The water is clean, clear and flushed by strong currents lulling you into a false sense of security when it comes to pollution, but beneath the surface lies a legacy far worse than the odd bit of plastic.
Dounreay Nuclear Power Station stands like a sentinel on the coastline of Caithness, originally situated up here due to the same remoteness that attracted me. It is in advanced stages of decommissioning, but its legacy has left the whole area with a lethal problem. Like many facilities of its type, disposal of waste in the early days especially was treated with a certain amount of contempt; there was little or no monitoring. Some low and mid-level waste was disposed of on site, most notably for water users, in a shaft which extended out under the sea. This shaft has seeped contaminated liquid into the groundwater and will become prone to coastal erosion in the future. If that wasn’t enough this makeshift nuclear dump has been the source of a minor explosion created by the build up of hydrogen. Other particles came from the releasing of water into the sea accidentally from coolant ponds.
The particles in question are considered very dangerous, lethal in some cases if ingested. Most common are Caesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, but it is thought some Plutonium 239, with a half-life of 24,000 years, was also released. These started turning up on the nearby Sandside beach, prompting its closure and warning signs being thrown up as well as fishing being banned within two miles of the facility. The whole area hid a barely visible toxicity, these nuclear particles are just the size of grains of sand. Since then a clean up operation has been underway on the beach and the sea bed off Dounreay.
Nevertheless, the estimated thousands of irradiated particles have slowly spread over a large area, some being detected as far away as the coast of Norway. In fact so great is the task here that during the two billion pound decommissioning they have used an underwater robot to recover over 2300 particles since the cleanup began. But the legacy from mistakes in the past is not likely to go away. The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, in its 2011 report, stated that further recovery of nuclear particles is likely to damage the surrounding ecosystem so much that it would be counter-productive to continue. So the nuclear industry once again looks like it will get away with its disregard for everything except making money.
It’s a scary thought, however unlikely it is that you could ingest one of these particles, the presence makes it possible and it’s a potentially lethal dose as well. Should we be worried as surfers? Probably not, but it is definitely damaging the whole marine ecosystem so is an extreme form of marine litter, which with a bit more responsibility from the station’s owners a decade or two ago could have been avoided.
I live near another station in Suffolk, Sizewell, and surf near it, so currently researching that as well.
As always thank you to the sponsors who have made this project possible.