Come on kids, let's go play in the abandoned nuclear power station
After oil, before shale: the future that never was
Geek's Guide to Britain On the northern tip of Scotland stands Dounreay – 74 hectares of nuclear site encompassing the world's first fast breeder reactor, and one of the first nukes to be wired into a national grid.
Built in an age of optimism – an era that wanted to turn the destructive power of The Bomb into energy that was too cheap to meter – these days the site is Europe's largest decommissioning and cleanup operation. The clearance won’t be finished until the year 2030, so I thought I'd take a look while we had the chance.
Not that the general public are allowed to wander around the site, or even drop in by appointment – as interested geeks we're limited to the museum in the local town of Thurso and the viewing area, where we're invited to have a picnic but warned that armed police might want to chat about our motivation, which is as much encouragement as a Vulture needs.
It's a far cry from May 1957 when the site was opened and 7,500 people queued up to walk the ground where history would be made, though perhaps if they knew what was going to become of that ground they'd have been less keen. Even now, nuclear power has an almost mystical thrall – extracting energy from the fundamental forces of nature by smashing atoms together until they shatter, even if our modern minds see fear there too.
If it's mystical now it was downright magical back in 1957 when construction started on what would be the UK's second commercial reactor, and one of the first to be wired into the national grid. For the locals, there was the overwhelming excitement that such a modern technology was coming to rural Scotland – these things normally stayed in London, or the South East at least – but the "atomics" were coming all the way to Scotland with expertise, resources, and jobs.
Not that the newly formed Atomic Energy Authority denied the risks, or hid the reasoning behind the choice of location. Public meetings were held and the decision was laid out to the locals, but the promise of economic development easily outweighed any concerns about radiation. Even the experts didn't understand the long-term effects, or the ability of the human body to recover from them, so it's not surprising that the atomics were welcomed with open arms.
Wish you were here: Dounreay from the sea. Photo: DSRL and NDA
The Authority hadn't been around for long, having been set up by a Royal Charter in 1954. The heraldic crest of Atomic Energy Authority adorns the entrance to the museum in Thurso. The museum itself is only a couple of rooms, attached to the side of the Caithness Horizons Centre where you can also see some Pictish stones and have an average cup of tea in the cafe.
The crest for the Authority, according to the accompanying notes, uses a pair of chained panthers to represent controlled ferocity, and every component represents part of the generating process right down to the "healthy plants and flowers showing the safety of nuclear power."
The plants and flowers were removed from the arms and the "Scottish" version of the arms installed, reflecting the Caithness stone within which the reactor was built.
Observant readers will have noticed that the plants are all dead and the base looks more like moon rock than a thriving ecosystem. The crest on the current Authority web site is equally lifeless, but back in the 1950s the commemorative ashtrays (gifts for visiting dignitaries, complete with depleted uranium in the glaze!) show grass and flowers growing sturdy and strong.
We didn't see them, but they certainly saw us. Photo: Bill Ray
This stuff used to be on display at the site, in an old traffic-control tower, but that became structurally unsafe so the collection was moved into the town. Presentation of the artefacts is a little higgledy piggledy; items are arrayed to suit the display cases rather than building up a coherent story, but time-lines help the visitor to construct a chronological narrative.
That narrative starts with visits from the Atomic Energy Authority, which addressed public meetings and talked a little about the risks, but mainly about the jobs and regional change that the construction was going to bring, and change there was.
At its peak, the construction at Dounreay was employing around 3,000 people, with 1,000 being “atomics” brought up from the south, but that number leaves out the supporting infrastructure and regeneration that came with the nuclear plant.
Before the building of Dounreay, the entire population of Caithness (Scotland’s top right county) was a shade over 3,000, but by 1961 it was more than 8,000 as contractors, builders, engineers and scientists swelled the local towns and villages. The Authority built new villages to accommodate the influx of people, providing a "Householder's Handbook" that reads more like something from Celebration (Disney's utopia in Florida) than a British relocation guide.
Roses and rock
The museum has a copy of the book so visitors can see the essential advice for anyone moving into one of the new properties developed alongside the plant. The instructions cover financial details, including a moratorium on sub-letting, but also provide considerable detail on how the garden should be maintained, to ensure consistency in the vista – "Tea and hybrid Tea Roses shall be pruned the second week in April," the book advises, but some freedom of expression was permitted, within limits – "the tenant may, if he wishes, cultivate a small border directly below the front window… but there is not to be any form of fencing".
The influx of population had a profound impact on the area, which continues to this day, as locals and migrants worked together to build the shiny new future they had been promised.
That first nuclear reactor on the site went critical in May 1958, and at the museum you can even see the first core (since depleted and extracted, and on display).
Dounreay Fast Reactor under construction, photo: DSRL and NDA
That was just a test run. The second reactor went critical – meaning it began to operate normally – on November 14, 1959, and was connected to the national grid in 1962, having cost around £15m to build.
The site was quickly earmarked for an even more exciting project to build a “fast breeder” reactor that could turn waste into more fuel. That reduces the final amount of radioactive waste and (more importantly) would helping the UK cope with the inevitable world shortage of uranium resulting from widespread adoption of nuclear power.
Observant readers will be aware that the shortage never happened – more reserves were found, extraction methods improved, and oil never really got too expensive to use. The complexity of fast breeder reactors meant they never produced power “too cheap to meter” as we had been promised, and the waste might be smaller in volume but it’s still pretty unpleasant to have around.
The museum has models of all the reactors, which light up to show the processes involved, but there’s not enough button-pushing for those without the physics background to enjoy the explanations.
The models might be missing buttons, but the remote operator arm more than compensates for that. Manipulating the arm outside the chamber one can play Homer Simpson in failing to slot fuel rods into their requisite chambers – just remember that Homer once managed to melt down a simulator he was using for practice.
There’s also a rather marvellous “Nuclear Survival Kit” from the time, containing a paper bag labelled “Nuclear Shelter” and cork used to prevent the ingress of radioactive material, and the first copy of the short-lived Reactor magazine, which contains articles on welding and a history of computers that culminates with the admission: “The authority has made considerable use of computer calculation, and six machines are used in the Reactor Group alone.”
With six computers at their fingertips the Authority could do just about anything, except keep the generators going. In 1977, the main reactor, which has been running since 1959, was put out. The fast breeder went on for another 17 years, but by the end of 1994 its life was over and the caged fires of Dounreay were doused for good.
The reactors might have been run down, but they were still there, and there was also the embarrassing problems of The Shaft and The Silo.
Dounreay's chemical waste hole, post explosion, photo: DSRL and NDA
The Silo is a concrete-lined swimming pool, built underground and full of highly radioactive waste that needs to be lifted out and taken somewhere else to be stored. That’s difficult, but not compared to the task of cleaning out the 65-metre hole into which waste was thrown until a chemical explosion in 1977, which served to demonstrate the injudicious nature of the plan. Digging out that hole, and removing the radioactive material inside it, makes decommissioning Dounreay unlike any other project.
And a project it is. Six years after the last reactor was shut down, in 2000, a plan was drawn up to put Dounreay back to how it was. That plan was budgeted at £4.3bn, and scheduled to take 60 years. In 2007 a better plan was created, this time with a schedule of 25 years and a cost of £2.9bn. A year later the cost had dropped to £2.6bn and the timescale was down to 17 years – if we wait until 2021 the cost should have reached zero while the time will be in negative numbers.
Two coaches, 24 cars
To get more details about the restoration we need to walk up the street to the Visitors’ Centre, where we can chat to the people from Dounreay Site Restoration. This isn’t a museum about the past, but a high-street presence representing the area as Europe’s Reference Site for nuclear decommissioning, though it does have cool gloves for those who want to see if it’s possible to complete a radioactive Rubik’s Cube.
First core, since depleted and extracted, with hat for scale. Photo: Bill Ray
Here we can learn about the companies involved in stripping down the site, companies who expect to be kept busy until 2025, after which the site will be left fallow (but monitored) for another 300 years or so while the radioactive fragments that couldn’t be removed play out their half lives.
Radioactive particles were first found outside the site in 1984, and the beach beside the plant has been closed off since then. Cleanup is a continuous process and the hope is that with painstaking effort every vestige of imported radiation can be removed and eventually the site will be back as it was in 1957, only with a lot more people living locally.
Many of those people are employed in the decommissioning – 1,500 are still working at the site, and that number again are employed around Scotland supporting the effort. Dounreay is providing almost as much employment now as it did when it was being built, and more than it needed to keep generating power, though these jobs do come with an end date which is drawing near.
The Scottish government is well aware of that, and the impact it’s going to have on the area when the jobs disappear. The idea is to build up a decommissioning skills base, ready to take on the rest of Europe’s ageing reactors, but the company admits that “much of the market will not be easily accessible or available to companies based in the UK” so there’s no guarantee of long-term employment.
But for the moment the site is busy, and the car park is full as we approach. Dounreay is about 16km (10 miles) outside Thurso, a pleasant drive along the Scottish coast past (perhaps with some irony) fields of wind farms which we’re hoping will generate the power lost when the nukes go dark.
Approaching the site we’re forcefully guided away from the entrance to a “Public Viewing Area” where someone has laid out parking for two coaches and 24 cars – perhaps a reflection of the optimism with which the plant was built. There are picnic tables, and information boards about local wildlife (disappointingly un-mutated), and the signs warning that armed police might approach.
They didn’t during our visit – perhaps our lone vehicle wasn’t threatening enough: a pair of coaches and a dozen cars would surely have caught their attention. We read the boards, and looked at the site. There was a plan to save the iconic ball of the reactor, it was going to sit alone on the landscape marking what once was, but earlier this year that plan was scrapped and now there’ll be nothing to say what might have been if the dreams had proved more practical than they were.
Don't drop the fuel rod! photo: Bill Ray
There’s something incredibly British about Dounreay. An engineering marvel, a world-leading technology, a pioneering spirit at the northernmost tip of the country, now being cut into pieces and packed away to disappear with the dreams that fuelled it.
Dounreay was never a failure; it achieved everything it set out to achieve, but the world moved in a different direction and left Fast Breeder reactors, and Dounreay, behind it. By the time the site has gone we’ll probably be able to fly up to this remote northern, coastal-fronted tip of the United Kingdom in our Google-guided, Musk-powered, aerial drones, but we probably won’t remember the pioneers who harnessed the power of the atom and then let it go again. ®
Dounreay Visitor Center
By car: A9 to Thurso, then Traill House, Olrig Street
By train: Regular service from Inverness to Thurso
Monday - Friday, 8.45am-5pm. Free
By car: A9 to Thurso. Follow signs to Caithness Horizons, park in Riverside car park, then walk up Wilson Lane to pedestrian precinct. The main entrance is on your right.
Monday – Friday 10am-6pm, Saturdays 10am-5pm. Sundays between May and August only. Free (donations gladly accepted)
Dounreay viewing point
By car: A9 to Thurso, then A836 to Buldoo, 0.16km (0.1 miles) outside Buldoo turn right.