A £25 million plan to use robots to clean up the worst of the radioactive particles from the seabed near Dounreay was unveiled yesterday amid claims such measures were long overdue.
The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) confirmed its preferred way to tackle the problem that has plagued the Caithness nuclear complex for nearly a quarter of a century.
After a major consultation lasting more than two years, it is proposed to remove the most hazardous offshore particles while continuing to monitor and recover those found at beaches around the base.
At present UKAEA recovers the so-called hotspots from beaches, but monitors those on the seabed without removing them.
If the preferred option is approved after a further 12-week consultation, the recovery operation will start next year.
Over the next three summers remotely-operated vehicles will scour 600,000 square metres of seabed - about the size of 60 football pitches - and suck up the hotspots using a technique that is still being developed.
Work will then be carried out on an old effluent chamber, about 50 metres below the seabed, which is believed to be the source of the particles.
Dounreay conducts about 5,000 samples a year in the environment. A spokesman said: "There is no evidence of any effect from particles on the marine environment or wildlife."
The project is estimated to cost £18 million to £28 million. Simon Middlemass, the site director, said the particles issue is one of the biggest challenges in the clean-up of Dounreay.
He said: "There are always cost implications of what we do and we do the best we can. But ultimately going around the entire seabed trying to find every last particle would be very difficult.
"People realise that cleaning up everything is not possible and see the benefit of doing the best we can within reasonable monetary boundaries."
Geoffrey Minter, the owner of Sandside beach, who in the past has taken UKAEA to court over the problem, said: "At long last, but not without a huge effort on the part of my private team, we have moved from a decade of denial to a declaration of duty and good intention. We do seem to be genuinely entering a new era."
Duncan McLaren, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: "It is an understatement to say that action to solve the problem has been a long time coming.
"We welcome the fact that a proper clean-up could be under way very soon. But this problem should act as a warning to those who would have us back a new generation of nuclear facilities."
Phil Cartwright, Dounreay's contaminated land and particles manager, said: "The length of time it has taken to get to this position has been the time taken to build up a picture of precisely what is happening on the seabed and identify whether there are other sources."
IN NUMBERS...THE BIG CLEAN-UP
2.9 billion Cost in pounds of cleaning up the Dounreay complex in Caithness over the next quarter of a century.
180 Number of buildings that will have to be dismantled.
50 Number of companies involved in the decommissioning work.
1,400 Number of radioactive particles recovered from the seabed and beaches near Dounreay since 1983.
? Number of particles on the seabed - it is unknown but is thought to be in the hundreds of thousands.
100 Number of particles found at Sandside beach, near Dounreay.
2,500 Number of significant and relevant particles that will be recovered in the new operation.
20 Number of years for which beaches will be monitored after the seabed clean-up.
6 Size, in millimetres, of the biggest particle found to date.
2,000 Total number of employees working on the clean-up.
140 Size, in hectares, of the Dounreay site
© 2007 Scotsman.com