Work has started to retrieve the last remaining fuel elements that have been stuck inside the iconic Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) in Caithness for decades.

The experimental fast breeder reactor operated from 1959 to 1977, when most of the core fuel was removed. However, work to remove elements from the breeder zone was suspended when some were found to be swollen and jammed. Almost 1000 – around two-thirds of the total – were left in place.

Decommissioning the 58-year-old reactor is one of the most technically challenging projects in the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) estate.

“Dealing with this material is one of the highest priorities anywhere for the NDA, not just at Dounreay but across our UK sites. The safe and timely retrieval of the breeder material is crucial to both the site’s closure programme and the national defueling programme,” said David Peattie, NDA Chief Executive.

After many years of designing and testing remotely-operated equipment, a decommissioning team has started a three-year project to recover the elements from the reactor. After removal they will be, packaged and transported to Sellafield for long-term storage or processing. 

The liquid metal residues will be removed after the breeder material is removed from the reactor, and reactor and circuit dismantling will take place, followed by decontamination and demolition of the reactor structures. 

Photo: Jamie Stone MP looks on as the Dounreay team removes a fuel element from the reactor (Credit; Dounreay)