Rear Window: Death of a fast breeder: An expensive nuclear dream sinks into the sea

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IT IS no accident that Britain's prototype fast-breeder reactor, which closes down on Thursday, is at Dounreay on the north coast of Scotland, for the civil servants who chose the site feared a nuclear explosion. A secret memorandum by the Ministry of Supply in 1953 warned that 'in view of this risk' the new type of reactor, which seemed to offer the promise of almost unlimited energy, should be built 'a considerable distance from a large town'. So it was placed almost as far away from London as you can go on the British mainland without falling into the sea.

The people of the area did not receive quite the same concern. Nearly a quarter of a century later Lord Hinton, the architect of the British nuclear industry, revealed how standards had been bent to allow the plant to be sited just 10 miles west of Thurso. He and his colleagues had counted the houses in the area to find out how many people would be seriously affected by a 'minor nuclear explosion' and found 'to our dismay that the site did not comply with the safety distances specified'.

However, the great engineer went on, 'that was easily put right'. They arbitrarily scaled down their predictions of the severity of the accident tenfold, and did the count again. 'By doing this,' he said, 'we established the fact that the site was perfect.'

Neither the scientists' worst fears, nor their bright hopes, have been realised. This week marks the death of the British fast-breeder programme, which was seen from the beginnings of the nuclear power industry as the keystone that crowned, and held together, the entire


Like a modern philosopher's stone, the fast breeder can produce more usable fuel than it burns - 'as though' as the scientific writer Ritchie Calder put it in a 1956 article in the News Chronicle - 'the pixies filled the coal scuttle every time you stoked the fire'.

It was thought that uranium, the fuel of conventional reactors, would grow scarce as nuclear power expanded across the world and the fast breeders would be desperately needed as they could squeeze 50 times as much energy from each pound of uranium. This they did by transforming uranium 238, which cannot be burnt as fuel, into plutonium, which can.

Plans drawn up by the UK Atomic Energy Authority and the Central Electricity Generating Board in the late 1950s predicted that a commercial fast breeder would be built in Britain every two years from 1974 onwards. In 1968, when that dream was as far from reality as ever, two of the UKAEA's top managers announced that 15 to 20 of them would be operating by 1986 and that their development 'would be the major event of the rest of the century'.

The optimism and determination refused to die. In 1976, Sir John Hill, the chairman of the UKAEA, argued that the world would face 'a very serious energy shortage in perhaps 10 years' time' and that living standards would drop unless fast breeders were in operation. One of his successors, John Collier (now chairman of Nuclear Electric), insisted 'the future of nuclear power lies with fast reactors', even after Cecil Parkinson, the then Energy Secretary, had announced in 1988 that funding would be cut off at the end of March 1994 because there was no prospect that they would be economic, or necessary, for 30 to 40 years.

All along this trail there were those who warned that the fast breeder was a delusion, from early engineers on the project who cautioned that it was 'unrealistic' and 'fantastic' to the environmentalists who have argued since the mid- 1970s that there was no impending uranium shortage (the cost of uranium has been falling rather than rising). But in this case the invention was the mother of the necessity.

In the end, only two, experimental, fast breeders were built in Britain, both at Dounreay. The first, the Dounreay Fast Reactor whose light-green dome became a symbol of the nuclear age, was announced 40 years ago this month and operated from 1959 to 1977. Its successor, the Prototype Fast Reactor, closes this week after 20 years (taking with it, as it goes, the main justification for the controversial Thorp plant at Sellafield, which ministers have just allowed to start up).

That is all there is to show for four decades and pounds 4bn. Other energy sources, particularly the renewables, have been starved of cash to provide this enormous sum - and there is good evidence that the development of wave power, the most promising of them, was deliberately stalled by officials to favour the nuclear programme. But - how's this for poetic justice? - next year the world's first wave-power station in open sea will start operating, off Dounreay.

(Photographs omitted)