Built as the power station of the future, now its time has past

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DOUNREAY was built in the 1950s by a government eager to make the most of a promising new technology - nuclear power.

The discovery that nuclear reactors could actually create their own fuel while they generated electricity seemed to be the ultimate free energy lunch.

But scientists assured ministers that "fast breeder" reactors, which would generate high-quality radioactive materials as part of their chain reaction, were the future.

The first British one was sited on the windswept far northcoast of Scotland, about 40 miles west of John o'Groat's.

Things began going wrong with monotonous regularity. The Sodium-cooled fast reactor, completed in 1959, caught fire and overheated a number of times.

A materials testing reactor was shut down in 1967 due to a major fuel leak. And in 1977 the waste shaft -tunnelled into the rock, which was expected to act as a store for nuclear leftovers indefinitely - blew off its cover. A concrete plug was installed, but the sea is eroding the rock and the race is on to empty the shaft before the water gets in.

Since 1989, when the Conservatives killed off the moribund fast breeder programme, Dounreay has been limping towards inevitable shutdown. While it has won a few reprocessing contracts - the latest being the controversial five kilograms of reactor fuel from Georgia - its closure will come early next century.

But crises still occur. In the past two years radioactivity has been found on a site director's chair, on the nearby beach, and on the road.

Three employees were found to have inhaled or swallowed radioactive particles which took them over the annual allowed dose. (The site managers were fined).