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DOUNREAY, Scotland -- An extensive investigation into a Scottish nuclear plant has found it has many safety problems, has been operated without clear knowledge of the risks involved and requires a change of safety culture.

After a series of safety-related incidents, the U.K. government in May shut down indefinitely the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority's Dounreay nuclear plant, on Scotland's far north coast (BI, May 25).

The plant was subjected to a comprehensive 19-day safety investigation in June, conducted jointly by the U.K. Health and Safety Executive and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. The resulting report, released this month, makes 143 recommendations to improve safety at Dounreay.

The government-funded Atomic Energy Authority, which operates the Dounreay plant, has until Nov. 30 to prepare a comprehensive plan detailing how it will respond to the recommendations and the costs associated with its response.

The plan will be reviewed by the HSE and SEPA, which both will determine jointly when and under what conditions the Dounreay plant can resume operations.

In a statement responding to the report, John McKeown, the AEA's chief executive, said the authority is taking the report very seriously and will consider its recommendations carefully. "We share the same goals as our regulators and will take forward the findings of the report," he said.

The Dounreay plant opened 44 years ago but stopped producing power in 1994. It now consists of three nuclear reactors, which are being decommissioned in a process that can take up to 100 years; two storage facilities; and a fuel cycle area that reprocesses nuclear materials into chemicals for the treatment of cancer.

Laurence Williams, HSE's chief inspector of nuclear installations, said in the report there is no imminent public danger from Dounreay, but he said the plant has "many chronic safety problems" that must be addressed. Mr. Williams said the HSE is looking for a "culture change" at Dounreay.

The report's main finding is that organizational changes at Dounreay during the past four years -- including the loss of experienced staff, a shift toward contracted employees and blurred responsibilities for health and safety -- have weakened the site's management and technical resources.

The result is that Dounreay is overly dependent on contractors for many key functions, the report said.

The report said the HSE has no problem with the use of contractors as long as the AEA re-establishes effective control over all activities onsite.

"We found that in many cases, control of activities had been delegated too far, such that the U.K. AEA was not in control, nor was it in a position to understand the safety significance of the contractors' activities," the report said.

One of the major safety incidents at Dounreay this year was a 12-hour power failure caused by excavation contractors who accidentally disrupted power lines.

The U.K. AEA will require contractors to improve safety at Dounreay, but the report said the AEA must take ownership of the necessary high standards and targets.

Other key findings of the report:

* There is no comprehensive strategy for dealing with the various forms of radioactive waste already at Dounreay or those produced in the future.

* There is a lack of progress and delays in decommissioning.

* Decommissioning and radioactive waste strategies should be integrated for the site as a whole.

* There are a number of deficiencies in the physical condition of Dounreay's fuel cycle area -- leading the HSE to suspect the U.K. AEA has been operating the area without clear knowledge of some of the risks.

* The U.K. AEA should broaden the scope of its reporting of safety incidents to regulators.