Dounreay 50 years on

23 March 2004

In 1954, the go-ahead was given for the construction of the experimental fast reactor at Dounreay. Over the last 50 years, Alistair Fraser of UKAEA has seen – and been closely involved in – the transformation of the former Dounreay airfield. By Corrina Thomson

Half a century ago the UK government chose one of the most remote areas of mainland Scotland as the site for a large-scale nuclear experiment – the fast breeder reactor – a technology that produced both electricity and plutonium. On 1 March 1954, UK minister of works Sir David Eccles made the announcement of the fast breeder reactor experiment in the House of Commons and by October, a wartime airfield at Dounreay was handed over from the Admiralty to the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). The airfield and nearby farmland were to be the location for the ‘Dome of Discovery’ and a complex of ancillary buildings.

The nuclear industry and this remote part of Scotland became inextricably linked as the population of the nearby town of Thurso tripled. Incoming nuclear workers were called ‘the atomics’ – a name that is still used for much of the people of the town today.

Fifty years on, the site has seen the start-up and shut down of three reactors at Dounreay and one at the neighbouring Vulcan naval reactor site. Operation of the shore test facility reactor at Vulcan continues today. The site was also used for reprocessing of UK and overseas fuel.

A local man who watched the construction of Dounreay as a young teenager and worked there for many years looked back over the last 50 years of the fast breeder experiment and told NEI about his experiences at the site. Alistair Fraser was born in a small village west of Dounreay and travelled past the reactor site to school in the town of Thurso every week, witnessing the transformation of windswept fields into one of the UK’s most famous nuclear landmarks. During his teenage years, around 1956, he worked in a labour camp canteen that served Dounreay construction staff.

Over the years, Fraser has been a local councillor, and has written and broadcast on public affairs. He worked at Dounreay in various capacities, including for construction contractor Alexander Hall, in the UKAEA contracts department and, presently, the communications department. Last year, he was awarded an MBE.


Fraser recalled the changes in the landscape while Dounreay was built and the nearby town of Thurso expanded. He said: “I remember passing every Monday morning from my home in Armadale to school in Thurso – it was a windswept aerodrome then. It was very impressive because they were working 24 hours a day and it started off as a web of steel created first of all by the cranes and then steelwork that made this gradual saucer develop into a bigger bowl.

“It started to creep up until you had a spherical object and they were working through the night with the lights shining on them and then there was the arcing of the welders, so at times it was quite spectacular.

“It gradually became a little saucer that mushroomed up into the sphere. It was very impressive because it was a very flat open landscape and to see this dome, which of course, there was nothing like it elsewhere in Britain.”

“Every day you passed Dounreay, the skyline was becoming jagged, fractured as new buildings were going up and cranes were towering into the sky.”

While he did not understand what nuclear operations would be carried out at Dounreay, he was excited by the prospect of long-term employment. “I suppose the honest truth is that one didn’t understand Dounreay’s purpose,” he said. “One was excited by the fact that there was the promise of many jobs and excited by the cosmopolitan atmosphere that was beginning to develop. I suppose the north of Scotland was fairly isolated from the rest of the world and we didn’t have a lot of interaction with people from the south.

“From my point of view, it was place that provided good jobs, training, apprenticeships, skills being developed and that’s really how I’ve always looked upon Dounreay – a place that, for the first time, stopped migration out of the Caithness and the northeast corner of Sutherland.

“I have to confess I was never, and am still not, all that bothered about the nuclear energy question. I have no strong opinion for or against it. It is no different, in my opinion, from many other industries. There are dangers inherent in the nuclear industry but let’s be honest, there are dangers inherent in many other industries. The nuclear industry is not an exclusive club, every industry has its dangers and shortcomings.”


As a member of the communications department, Fraser often has to answer many of Dounreay’s critics. He said many people judge past events by today’s standards. “My criticism of the critics is that they tend to view things by the standards of what was done 30 to 40 years ago, he said. “They would have every right to criticise Dounreay for doing things today in the same way they did back then.”


It started off as a web of steel created by the cranes and then steelwork that made this gradual saucer develop into a bigger bowl

He continued: “I wish some of the critics were honest and would admit that they are trying to apply current practices to events that took place yesterday. And that applies to every industry, every day we are wiser, we learn from the practices of yesterday and, yes, we would not do some things at Dounreay that we did before.”

In 1977, a partly unlined shaft in the bedrock at Dounreay, which is filled with a mixture of nuclear waste and water, exploded. The cliff top shaft has since become a focal point for critics of poor atomic waste management and the UK nuclear industry in general.

Fraser reflected on this, saying: “It is conveniently forgotten by the majority of critics that the shaft was a licensed repository or dumping ground– call it what you like.

“It wasn’t some hole in the ground that the scientists of the day said ‘let’s just throw it down here, nobody knows it’s here and nobody will ever know it’s been here.’ It was licensed by the government of the day and on that basis the Dounreay scientists or engineers deemed it safe to do that.

“The government, scientists and engineers of today wouldn’t do that but it was done then. That’s not to necessarily say it was wrong. Nobody would turn round and say the workers in those days were stupid or thick or suicidal – that was the practice, we don’t do that nowadays.”


He went on to highlight training opportunities at the site and said its apprentice development programme is the ‘jewel in Dounreay’s crown’. “I’m sure the rest of Britain, any community the size of ours, would give their right hand to know that they had a fairly strong economic employment base for the next 30 years. There are people as yet unborn who will probably retire out of Dounreay – not many communities can boast that,” he said.

He described the mixing of local people and people who moved to the area to work at Dounreay as ‘another great success’ and paid credit to local councillors at the time for the role they played. He said: “These were people of absolute integrity who weren’t in it for glorification of their own status but who were in it for the good of the town. These people made sure that the new folk coming in were made to feel welcome and were gradually absorbed into the everyday way of life.”

In terms of the future, Fraser said there is adequate time to prepare for job downturns to come. He contrasted this with the period after a 1988 UK government announcement that heralded the end of Prototype Fast Reactor funding by 1994. He said: “There was a quite ridiculous government-sponsored report that spelled doom and gloom with streets of empty houses, unemployment at 30%.

“We, at least, have time on our hands. But I’m not totally convinced that the end of the road has been reached for nuclear energy. The government is putting great stress on windmills but there aren’t enough windmills to create the amount electricity needed – and look at the controversy that they create, which we’re also witnessing here in Caithness.”

Hoping that there will be a good future for the area, Fraser said it would be inexcusable if agencies do not put a proper strategy in place to this end. He said: “I certainly hope that Thurso will have a bright future because it’s a town I first went to in 1953 to school and I’ve known it ever since. I’ve seen it develop three-fold and enjoyed the fruits of what it has offered in terms of shops and social life, witnessed and, indeed, experienced the depression that hit it in the late 80s.

“Now, again, we see a degree of buoyancy and it’s up to all the agencies to work together to ensure the experience that they went through in the late 80s, irrespective of what the future holds for Dounreay, they at least have time on their hands to work out a strategy for the future. At least there is time on one’s side to think what the way forward will be post-Dounreay and it will be lamentable and inexcusable if that is not done.

“Leaving aside all the politics of the situation, I’m kind of sad to see it coming to an end. I would like to have seen it continue.”

Fraser continued: “Maybe you could accuse me of looking at it through rose-tinted glasses but I am sufficiently old to remember a less buoyant economy and people going away to work, to hydro schemes – there was fracturing of families. Whereas with the coming of Dounreay, that was all reversed. Dounreay has been, and is, a very enriching experience for this area.”

Related Articles
UKAEA's first 50 years

Dounreay key dates
Dounreay key dates

House of Commons announcement that large-scale experimental fast reactor is to be built at Dounreay on the north coast of Scotland.
UKAEA established.

Site construction commences with the excavations for Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) foundations.

Dounreay Materials Testing Reactor (MTR) construction completed.

MTR achieves criticality.
DFR construction completed and commissioning commenced.

DFR achieves criticality.

First electrical output from DFR to national grid.

5.4% burnup in experimental DFR fuel achieved, thus justifying construction of Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR).

Approval of PFR at Dounreay announced to parliament.

MTR closed down.

Loading of fuel into PFR completed and reactor starts operation at low power.

PFR achieves full thermal power, 600MWt.
DFR closed down by Lord Christopher Hinton.

PFR first achieves full electrical power.

Fast reactor policy statement by Secretary of State for Energy Cecil Parkinson to cease PFR funding by 1994.

PFR shut down.

Launch of Dounreay Site Restoration plan – a scheme to decommission redundant facilities at the site and restore some of the grounds.

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It started off as a web of steel created by the cranes and then steelwork that made this gradual saucer develop into a bigger bowl

Dounreay under construction 2 Dounreay under construction 2
Dounreay under construction 1 Dounreay under construction 1
Alistair Fraser Alistair Fraser

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