Comhairle nan Eilean Siar are to write to the operators of the Dounreay nuclear facility amid concerns that highly-radioactive waste is to be transported by sea down the Minch and on to Sellafield.
Sea trials are soon to be conducted to determine whether it is a realistic option, but Dounreay Site Restoration Limited — the consortium in charge of the £1.6 billion decommissioning process — insist no decision has yet been made.
Island councillors have asked for reassurance that transportation by sea will be safe — particularly now that there is only one emergency tug vessel covering the northern isles and west coast, which operates out of Orkney.
Campaigners have complained that the huge geographic area involved leaves many fragile comunities at risk of a maritime and environmental disaster, as it would take hours for a tug to steam from the northern waters down to the southern Minch.
The comhairle wrote to DSRL last May asking to be kept fully informed of any developments involving plans to switch from rail to sea transport. Another letter was being sent this week.
Comhairle leader Angus Campbell said: “We have had no definite confirmation of the proposals, even though we wrote to them last May asking to be kept informed of any plans to ship waste through the Minch.
“With the tug now missing from Stornoway it is a much less safe environment and if it (transport by sea) was to happen then we would need a lot of reassurance and details. The emergency tug is hardly in the Minch now and it makes it much more difficult to counteract any issue — there is a significant risk to shipping.”
The council, along with other local authorities in the Highlands and Islands, have called for the reinstatement of a second tug specifically to cover the waters of the Minch.
A DSRL spokesman said: “The sea trial has not been conducted yet. It is planned for later in the year. There has been no decision to take the material by sea.
“The Dounreay Stakeholder Group was informed in March that trials of a sea route would be carried out. If successful, this will give the option of two routes.”
The decision to close Dounreay was taken back in 1998 and since then the site has been undergoing a lengthy and complex decommissioning process. The waste material is the overall responsibility of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority who want the spent fuel managed at Sellafield.
Around 26 tonnes of it is classified as highly-radioactive, some of which includes highly-enriched uranium.