The experiment ends, but Dounreay lives on

While the nuclear plant is to close, its work will continue for years, writes Charles Arthur

THE end, when it came, was swift. A brief press conference in Edinburgh yesterday morning and Dounreay, the nuclear plant where they "lost" enough uranium for 10 Hiroshimas, was history. The beast lay dead, with anti-nuclear groups singing and dancing on its corpse.

Yet, as with most things related to Dounreay, little is as it appears. Not much will change at the processing plant near Thurso on the north coast of Scotland. Dounreay was on its last legs before yesterday's announcement - but those legs are long, for decommissioning will take 100 years. Its life as a nuclear power station actually ended in 1994, and apart from the tiny amount of highly enriched uranium brought in from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, it has only one reprocessing contract, from Australia.

However, Dounreay has made headlines repeatedly by a series of embarrassing mishaps and pratfalls. The Georgia shipment arrived when the reprocessing plant had been shut down by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII), on the grounds that many of the ancient ventilation systems urgently needed replacing.

It was fined in court after three employees received one-off internal radiation doses greater than the annual allowed dose. And a mechanical digger sliced through power cables for a processing area, and the backup power system for the ventilation system failed to kick in. That is just this year, and Dounreay is over 40 years old.

Roy Nelson, the plant's director, has nine government nuclear inspectors crawling over his plant. Next week, MPs will join them, concerned about security. So is Dr Nelson. This week he admitted to The Independent that a pounds 1m electrified fence had to be installed around key areas of complex last year, after mock terrorists broke in during a security exercise.

Defending that failure, he said: "It's not a question just of their getting in, but of how long it takes." The new fence, he claimed, would slow infiltrators down until the police could get there and deal with it.

Perhaps most alarming, is the discovery of some radioactive particles as big as grains of sand on the beach and in the sea near Dounreay. Analysis shows that they date back to the Sixties: which means something, somewhere, is leaking. But what? Dr Nelson offers complex geological explanations, but he is concerned: "I want to be in control of what's going on here," he said.

Outsiders accuse Dounreay of excessive secrecy, of covering up mishaps. It kept secret for years the fact that in 1977 there was a (non-nuclear) explosion in its waste shaft, which does hold nuclear material. Mere hours before yesterday's closure announcement, Dr Nelson was insisting that he wanted his staff to move away from the culture of secrecy that prevailed for the first 30 years of the plant's life.

But those who worked there at the time say that secrecy was part of the culture, both inherited and necessary - but that it did not cover any true misdeeds.

"With all the environmental stuff, you have to understand it in the context of the time before judging it," said Steve Gashmore, 50, who worked in the plant for 18 years. "Forty years ago you could get in a car without wearing a seat belt, without an MoT, and there was no such thing as drunk driving."

As for the secrecy, it was the Cold War, he points out: Dounreay was a first-strike nuclear target, and a site where one could acquire expertise before moving to the real atomic weapons sites. "Of course it was secret. And it's human nature to suspect something that's veiled in secrecy."

Like most people in Thurso, he was, and is, unmoved by the protests about the plant. "When they used to hold marches against the plant they only used to get three people. Nobody from the town was against it."

And the disposal of nuclear material down a shaft by the sea? "In the US at that time they used to dig a hole and throw things down it. In Russia, they would just throw it in a lake - then when the water level dropped, the contaminated soil would blow around."

The Government said that yesterday's decision was made on economic grounds. Others might think the final straw was a report by the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), which owns, suggesting that 170kg of fissile "material unaccounted for" (MUF), including weapons-grade uranium, might be lurking down the 216ft deep shaft. Cynics suggested that the "lost" material was diverted to the weapons programme.

Those who worked there say that is untrue: that when they began, they were less good at measuring exactly the amounts of uranium while handling them through 10ft of concrete.

Now, Dounreay's life cycle is almost complete. Thurso is home to many who saw it from the start, such as Eric Voice. He was the first scientist on the site, and worked out of a Nissen hut while the complex was constructed, boosting Thurso's population from 3,000 to more than 8,000 people.

Now in his seventies, he can recall a key moment in Dounreay's history: "It was mid-1957. There was a team of three of us at Dounreay, working on achieving criticality-- a self-sustaining, chain reaction in nuclear material. I had built a sort of sphere shape of material, and I remember being on the verge of causing criticality; all I had to do was press a button with my finger. So I called over my colleagues so we could all press the button together."

It demonstrated that nuclear power could be generated safely in the north as well as the south of the British isles. Coming there to work, he said, was "almost a pilgrimage. We felt we were driving the future".

In those days everything seemed possible. The spherical shell that would house the Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) was known as the "Dome of Discovery".

That Dome will remain: it has been listed by Scottish Heritage. The rest of the plant will continue to process nuclear material, at least until 2006. In 100 years or so, its doors will finally close. The beast is dead-- but it will probably survive longer than anyone who killed it off.

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