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Morale low among staff after series of safety lapses at Dounreay

By Iain Grant

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The Dounreay Stakeholder Group meeting heard that morale was low among staff.
The Dounreay Stakeholder Group meeting heard that morale was low among staff.

Dounreay bosses are facing claims that worker morale has plummeted in the wake of a series of recent safety lapses at the plant.

While accepting that lessons have been learned, they say the DSRL workforce is 'pulling together' and committed to addressing the shortcomings.

Nuclear inspectors were on the site last week continuing their probe into the most serious incident, involving a leak of radioactive hydrogen from a waste plant where highly volatile sodium is stored.

The incident, on April 20, has been classed as an 'anomaly' on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES).

In its wake, Dounreay has begun its latest 'stand-down' in which staff are given a series of safety briefings.

In February, enforcement action was taken by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) over several 'near misses' during crane-lifting operations at Dounreay.

Since then, there has been a further similar lifting incident and problems identified with safety documentation.

According to former Highland councillor Gillian Coghill, the series of mishaps has hit morale among the 1200-plus workforce.

Speaking at the latest quarterly meeting of Dounreay Stakeholder Group (DSG) on Wednesday evening, Mrs Coghill said: "The feedback I've been getting from the site from various sources is that morale is low due to the safety issues.

"It's really important that this gets addressed and doesn't get poly-fillered."

Mrs Coghill, the chair of DSG's site restoration sub-group, said it is vital that the release of radioactive tritium from a storage tank at the prototype fast reactor complex is thoroughly investigated.

Ian Rogers, who heads the ONR operation at Dounreay, said a team of specialists were on site last week to complete the agency's preliminary probe into the release.

He said: "It's a fact-finding exercise which will be used to decide whether we carry out a full inquiry and to consider any further enforcement action we wish to undertake."

Mr Rogers said as it has been classed as an INES 1 – the second lowest on the scale – ONR is required to update the Scottish Government on its findings.

Dounreay managing director Mark Rouse acknowledged morale issues but said positive things were happening too.
Dounreay managing director Mark Rouse acknowledged morale issues but said positive things were happening too.

Regarding site morale, he said ONR shares Mrs Coghill's disquiet.

"We're concerned about the culture and morale on site," he said.

"But just this week, I've sensed a temperature change. People on site do seem to be more engaged and wanting to grab hold of the problem and get Dounreay back to where it should be.

"I've seen them do it before and I've every confidence that they will do it again."

Mr Rogers said management has been 'open and transparent' in co-operating with ONR investigations.

He said: "There have been a number of incidents recently but we are broadly content that the risks to individuals on site are as low as reasonably practicable.

"There's certainly no need for mass hysteria."

Soon after the tritium release, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) judged the risk to the public or the environment was "extremely low".

Sepa is carrying out its own investigation.

Barry Cran, DSRL's director of assurance, said it is taking the April 20 incident "incredibly seriously".

He said management was "on its toes" as Covid restrictions eased and the site started to return to full operation, recognising this could be a time when safety standards could slip.

Mr Cran said the corporate safety message during the current stand-down is "work together".

"It's the site saying we're all in this and we're focusing on working together," he said.

DSRL managing director Mark Rouse said it has completed its own probe into the PFR incident and drawn up an action plan to prevent a recurrence.

"A number of lessons were learned," he said.

On staff morale, Mr Rouse added: "Morale at times like this is fragile but Dounreay is pulling together.

"There are morale issues and there are some issues we need to step up and address as a matter of urgency but there's a lot of things going on here that are very positive."

DSG chairman Struan Mackie said DSG is looking to see improvements in Dounreay's safety performance following the run of incidents.

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