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Dounreay - Past Present Future

Over View
Uranium was a scarce metal in the 1950s. The energy it contained was enormous, however, and Britain saw this metal - and its by-product, plutonium - as being vital to meeting the nationís growing post-war demand for electricity.  A new type of electricity generating reactor was needed that would use uranium much more efficiently than any other type of reactor then under development.  The solution in 1954 was the fast breeder reactor - a type that not only unlocked more of the energy potential of the fissile uranium but also took a non-fissile form of uranium and turned it into plutonium that itself could be used as new fuel. In effect, the reactor would breed more fuel than it consumed.  Although a number of sites were considered, Dounreay was chosen because it was remote, sparsely populated and had a limitless supply of both sea and fresh water.

Over the next 40 years, UKAEA scientists led the world in research and development of this new technology.  An experimental reactor, the landmark Dounreay Fast Reactor, or "Dome of Discovery", operated from 1959 until 1979; a larger model, the Prototype Fast Reactor, ran from 1974 until 1994; and a materials test reactor operated from 1958 until 1969.  A variety of laboratories and chemical plants were built to handle the fuel for these reactors and various facilities developed for the chemical treatment, storage and, where appropriate, disposal of the wastes that arose from this programme.  For many years, Dounreay was the most advanced nuclear establishment of its kind in the world.

Construction started in 1955 and UKAEA built more than 180 facilities on almost 140 acres of land.  It also acquired a further 1350 acres of adjoining ground that it continues to let to agricultural tenants today.  At the peak of operations, some 2400 people worked on the fast reactor programme at Dounreay and a huge influx of people transformed the local economy.  Thurso, the nearest town eight miles away, trebled in size to 9000 people.

All the reactors are now shut down and the objective of the UKAEA today is to decommission the site and restore its environment.  The work to decommission the site fully is expected to take 50 - 60 years.

Expenditure at Dounreay has doubled in recent years and now runs at £140-150million per annum, of which over £60 million a year goes into the economy of Caithness and Sutherland in wages, pensions, contracts and sub-contracts.  UKAEA employs some 1200 staff at the site and there are 1000 contractors on site at one time.  Implementation of the decommissioning work is done by contractors.