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Dounreay - UKAEA History - The First Fifty Years By Andy Munn
The First Fifty Years Intro
Aspects Of The
Early History On The Site
UKAEA – THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS
In 2004 the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority celebrated its Golden Jubilee. On 19 July 1954 the Atomic Energy Bill received the Royal Assent and the resulting Act gave UKAEA the power “to produce, use and dispose of atomic energy and carry out research into any matters therewith”.
Sir Edwin Plowden became its first Chairman, taking over from Lord Portal at the Ministry of Supply, which had previously been responsible for the atomic energy programme. His fellow board members were the great nuclear pioneers, Sir Christopher Hinton, in charge of the Industrial Group, Sir John Cockcroft, Research Group, and Sir William Penney, Weapons Group.
Together they presided over the early years of UKAEA, arguably the Golden Age of atomic energy. In 1954 UKAEA inherited nearly 20,000 employees – but by 1961 that figure had doubled to 41,000.
The immediate reason was a very big expansion of the defence programme and the need for much more plutonium and highly enriched uranium; new materials were also required for the H-bomb, which the Government announced in February 1955 was to be developed. The Weapons Group carried out 21 major tests of atomic and hydrogen warheads in Australia and the Pacific, between 1952 and 1958.
The Windscale Piles production reactors on the west Cumbrian coast were fully operational by the time UKAEA was formed. There is no doubt that the design and construction of the Piles in the late 1940s, at a time when Britain was struggling to recover from five years of war, was a major achievement. Plutonium was desperately needed for Britain’s post war nuclear defence programme. In 1950 Aldermaston became the main nuclear weapons site and received the first plutonium from Windscale in 1952.
But a further reason for the expansion was the development of nuclear power for electricity generation. It is difficult now to appreciate the excitement of those early years of nuclear research and development. At Harwell, western Europe’s first reactor called GLEEP (Graphite Low Energy Experimental Pile) had already been built as had BEP0 (British Experimental Pile O) together with radiation laboratories – the “hot labs”.
By 1954, Dounreay in Caithness had been chosen as the site for the emerging fast breeder reactor programme and the following year work began on the Dounreay Fast Reactor. Risley, established in the same year as Harwell, provided the design support for the reactor programme.
A great day of triumph for UKAEA came in October 1956 when The Queen visited Calder Hall to open the world’s first full-scale nuclear power station. Britain was proud to lead the world in the peaceful use of atomic energy. Further Magnox power stations were to follow, many still providing base load electricity to the national grid.
Early in 1957 the decision was taken to develop a new site for nuclear research. Winfrith Heath was chosen in Dorset and uniquely among the UK’s nuclear research facilities it was the only one to be built on a greenfield site.
It had been a great success story so far. However, in October 1957 the Windscale Fire brought the euphoria of the first age of nuclear energy to an abrupt end. Both Piles were shut down following the accident, never to be re-started.
Though the Windscale fire was the most serious nuclear accident in the UK it did lead to considerable safety, technical and regulatory improvements in the industry. The National Radiological Protection Board was formed as direct result and, though an independent Nuclear Installations Inspectorate had already been proposed, the fire hastened its formation.
Despite this misfortune the civil nuclear programme continued apace. The Magnox family of reactors was still under construction and the prototype advanced gas-cooled reactor at Windscale came into full power in 1963 heralding the beginning of the second nuclear age.UKAEA At 50 Site
That same year a promising new design of reactor was under construction at Winfrith – the SGHWR (Steam Generating Heavy Water Reactor).