For sale: pioneering site, may be contaminated by radiation

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The Independent Online

The Millennium Dome may have become a discredited symbol of political folly and public wastefulness on a grand scale south of the border but in Scotland the owners of the dome at the Dounreay nuclear power plant believe they have an architectural gem on their hands.

As they prepare to dismantle the controversial research centre, plans are also being put forward to secure the heritage of the pioneering site. The reactor's famous stainless steel "golf ball", plonked on a lonely clifftop overlooking the storm-tossed Atlantic against a background of rugged mountains, could become the centrepiece for a luxury hotel development.

Of course that is not to say that there are no potential obstacles to be overcome before the first guests start checking into the "Fast Breeder" honeymoon suite at Dounreay.

The first problem is the successful completion of a £2.9bn decommissioning process which must see all traces of radioactivity erased from the site – a process which is expected to take up to 25 years.

Then there is the question of where the waste will be stored. Under current rules the 15,000 tons of highly-toxic radioactive material left over from half a century of nuclear experimentation must be stored above ground in a series of silos ringing the golf ball centrepiece, not the easiest thing to square with potential holidaymakers here to enjoy the region's phenomenal mountaineering, scuba diving and wildlife.

Retaining and maintaining the dome, currently owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, will cost £10.1m with further cash needed on a regular basis to keep it in good decorative order by any prospective owner.

Scottish Heritage has already held discussions on whether or not to award the dome listed-building status. Built on the site of an old military airfield whose aircraft were supposed to protect the British fleet in its temporary Second World War home of Scapa Flow off Orkney, the plant was on the cutting edge of post-war technology.

It was one of the world's first fast-breeder reactors and as well as pioneering radioactive treatments for cancer and other medical uses, it also developed techniques later applied to the UK's embryonic atomic energy programme – an industry which is poised to make a dramatic resurgence amid concerns over global warming and energy security.

Dounreay is also credited with bringing economic prosperity to the remote region in the 1950s at a time when the population was dwindling as farming and fishing went into decline.

For this reason there is also talk of turning the site into a nuclear museum, complete with the declassified archives left over from the project.

Among suggestions produced in an internal paper outlining other possibilities are a conference centre, nightclub and even a space observatory.

A Dounreay spokesman, Colin Punler, said that any decision would be arrived at through a transparent public consultation process.

He said: "The question has been asked – should it remain or should it be knocked down? Some people are very attached to it, others see it as a piece of radioactive scrap. It depends on your point of view."

Three proposals

* Simon Beames

Youmehesha Architects

"What an amazing opportunity. Our vision is to continue generating power for an eco resort adjacent to the site. We see a subtropical paradise of plants and adventure, accelerating the process of climate change, highlighting the effects and acclimatising our population in preparation of the inevitable (and no flights needed). The sphere itself, right, would be dissected at 35 degrees, facing directly south, offering the best orientation for UV light reception. Cladding the interior of the sphere surface in mirrors focused towards a central tower, natural energy would be harnessed. Solar evacuated tubes forming the tower collect the sun's energy in the most efficient way, generating super heated water to power turbines for heating "

* Amin Taha

Amin Taha architects

"Strip the dome back to its concrete skin and cut one large hole in its side three quarters of the way up; this will trace the sun's path across the internal face. Sitting on its own in the wider landscape will leave it as a landmark sculpture, a reminder of its past and a geographical signal like the angel of the north. Rain will pool and echo in its dark, cavernous interior with a shaft of light – illumination at the mercy of the Scottish weather."

* Sam Jacob

FAT architects

"It's an amazing thing and it would be a great shame if it were demolished. Nuclear reactors have an amazingly mysterious interior. It would be great to be inside the great big ball – and it would also be a tragedy to 'normalise' it. I'd imagine it's like being in an inside-out planet. Its appeal is somewhere between science fiction and a sort of ancient primordial quality. Maybe it would be best to think of it as a mysterious monument – an 'Unclear' monument, if you want a bad pun on its former use. Perhaps it could become an experience that captures the optimism and terror of nuclear technology – both apocalyptic and utopian. A sort of theme park of fear and optimism. Or maybe it could become a kind of 21st-century folly with a cosmic dimension. Maybe the sphere could be pierced with tiny holes that line up in a series of cosmic alignments at various moments. With a tiny chair in the middle. Flocks of birds or bats might fly around the volume, and the interior could be gold leafed. Maybe a soundtrack could be commissioned based on the half-life of uranium; it could last for thousands of years and be played by generations of musicians handing their instruments from father to son in succession. A kind of cathedral to the wonder and amorality of science, done in the style of a cross James Turrell crossed with Walt Disney."