Three leading Scottish universities are fighting a bill of more than Pounds 3 million to decommission a nuclear reactor set up through a Government initiative.
Glasgow, Edinburgh and Strathclyde Universities are the three remaining members of the consortium running the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre (SURRC), set up in 1963 with a grant from the then Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.
The centre's reactor is being decommissioned as the demand for nuclear engineers has dwindled, and the universities could not justify an impending bill to replace its nuclear fuel. They have already spent almost Pounds 1 million on having the fuel reprocessed and stored at Dounreay, but are dismayed to find the Government is rejecting their appeal to underwrite the cost of getting rid of the reactor's radioactive core.
A Scottish Office spokeswoman said: "For technical reasons, the universities concerned do not qualify for the limited specific Government grants intended to cover some decommissioning costs."
Ministers had taken this extra pressure on the three universities into account in setting a higher level of grant for the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council in 1997-98, she said. It was for SHEFC to allocate grants to institutions, and for the institutions themselves to manage these funds.
A spokeswoman for SHEFC said funding had been maintained globally in real terms for the coming year, but the council had decided that it could not top-slice resources to give special financial help to the three institutions.
Roger Scott, the SURRC's director, said the lack of central help was "fundamentally unjust", since the centre had been used as a Scottish training and research tool.
Arthur Allison, vice principal of Glasgow University and convener of the SURRC management committee, said: "It is totally unfair for the three universities to be landed with this responsibility. The reactor was set up with Government money to benefit the whole scientific community, and we feel very aggrieved."
The Higher Education Funding Council for England contributed a substantial sum to the recent decommissioning costs of the Joint Universities Reactor run by Liverpool and Manchester Universities, but the land was later able to be sold with funds being returned to HEFCE. The Scottish universities do not own the East Kilbride site but merely lease it.
An Edinburgh University spokeswoman said the universities had fully provided the short term costs of decommissioning, but if official help were not forthcoming, they would not welcome the additional commitment.
A Strathclyde University spokeswoman said European support was being investigated. "But if all avenues are exhausted, we will meet our obligations."