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Dounreay Airfield

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Dounreay airfield was a World War II airfield built on the north coast of Scotland, in Caithness, for RAF Coastal Command. Having inspected the site in December 1942, it was constructed as an advance base for use in operations against occupied Norway, but was never occupied. Following the end of the war, the site became famous as the location of the world's first fast nuclear reactor.

World War II

Dounreay differed from the other wartime airfields in the area, RAF Wick, RAF Castletown and RAF Skitten, in that it had been planned, and was intended for use by Coastal Command, while the others had been constructed quickly in response to the needs for such facilities.

In December 1943, Coastal Command declared it would not be occupying Dounreay, and offered the airfield to Bomber Command.

Bomber Command declined the offer, stating that the airfield was unsuitable for heavy bomber operations, and had no potential for expansion. Nearby hills were also noted to be a serious hazard to flying operations.

Completed in April 1944, the airfield was immediately placed on care and maintenance, then in May 1945, was transferred to the Admiralty when the Royal Navy briefly showed some interest in the site.

Although the station remained on care and maintenance until well after the war ended and was never commissioned, it came to be known as HMS Tern II, intended to be a satellite of HMS Tern at Twatt in Orkney. Instead, the airfield was used as a dummy and for diversions.[1]

In 2002, a report on the area described a number of remaining features from the airfield, thought to have lain in the area to the east of the old control tower. These included a brick building which contained Link Trainers (named after the inventor) which were an early form of flight simulator which could be used to teach new pilot the skills needed to fly by Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), rather than Visual Flight Rules (VFR). Another building was gas clothing store, described as the first home of the Dounreay Apprentice School, together with a number of decaying building belonging to the field's domestic facilities. Further along is a building which would have contained diesel powered generators which would have powered the site. A nearby hilltop had the remains of a radio navigation beacon which would have been used to guide aircraft back to the field.

Cold War

Although not directly involved in any war related action, the airfield was later to contribute to the country's Cold War strategy, the development of Wick airfield, and the nuclear facilities which were established at Dounreay.

The airfield remained on care and maintenance after World War II ended, a status it maintained until it was transferred to the Air Ministry in October 1954, and then into ownership by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA).

The details of Dounreay's involvement in influencing Cold War strategy are described more fully in Dounreay - The Cold War Connection,[2] but some of the main points are noted below:

  • The primary V-Bomber bases of Prestwick, Kinloss, Machrihanish, Leuchars and Lossiemouth needed secondary runways, and Dounreay was the only one available.
  • The V-Bombers were later able to use Wick airfield, where the runway had been extended from 4,000 feet to 6,000 feet.
  • By 1955, the B-52 Stratofortress had arrived, removing the need for American aircraft to refuel in Britain while en route to Moscow.
  • Agreement had to be reached on the removal of restrictions placed on the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), which gave control of the land to the Air Ministry, before any work could begin on the new nuclear facilities.

Once clearance was obtained, the site was able to became home to a number of nuclear development programmes, and to HMS Vulcan, the Naval Reactor Test Establishment.

The article referred to above provides an interesting definition of the Nuclear Deterrent, probably somewhat underestimated if today's revelations of the effect are to be believed, which runs as follows:

Dounreay remained one of 52 prime Soviet nuclear targets until at least 1990. To be honest, even if it had not been so, in the event of a nuclear war, few of us in Caithness would have survived. In 1980, a Russian military planner concluded that, an all-out nuclear war would result in the detonation of 14,747 nuclear devices on 1,300 Northern Hemisphere locations. Killed instantly would be 750 million people. A further 340 million wounded would have died a week later. All rainwater would become contaminated, poisoning crops and killing livestock. Famine would stalk the world, the socio-economic system would collapse, driving at least one third of all survivors mad. Within a year of the war's outbreak, 2 billion human beings would be dead, and the situation would only get worse. These statistics define the term 'nuclear deterrent'.

Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment

In 1955, UKAEA established the Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment on the site, set up in line with UK Government policy of the time to develop fast breeder reactor (FBR) technology. Dounreay was chosen as the reactor location for safety, being remote from major population centres in case of an explosion. The first reactor built was surrounded by a 60 metre giant steel sphere, the containment dome, still a landmark feature.

Most of the airfield and its building were demolished to make way for construction of the new facility, with a few notable exceptions. One of the three original concrete runways was retained and remained in use until the 1990s (when the Government ordered the closure of the facility in 1994), to allow air movement of parts and material for the site.

The wartime control tower was retained to became the Dounreay Visitor and Exhibition Centre, modified by the addition of a glass windowed observation to the upper level, where visitors could view the facility. On June 22, 2007, the old control tower housing the visitor centre was demolished after it had suffered severe storm and flood damage towards the end of 2006. The cost to repair the old building made the work uneconomic, and a new centre was set up in Thurso, Caithness Horizons, where the public can see exhibitions and an archive of historic material saved from the old facility.

The UKAEA operated three reactors at Dounreay, all now closed down:

  • The Dounreay Materials Test Reactor (DMTR) first went critical in May 1958, and closed in 1969, when testing was moved to Harwell.
  • The Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) first went critical in November 1959, producing an electrical output of 14 MW which was exported to the National Grid from October 14, 1962, until the reactor was taken offline for decommissioning in 1977. This reactor occupied the well known dome housing.
  • The Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR) went critical in 1974, with an output of 250 MW which was supplied to the National Grid from January 1975. The reactor was taken offline in 1994.

The first Dounreay reactor achieved criticality in 1957:

A chain reaction which provided sustained and controlled nuclear energy in Scotland was achieved for the first time 50 years ago. The experiment at Dounreay put the site in Caithness at the cutting edge of nuclear technology at the time. Half a century on, the plant is being decommissioned at a cost of £2.9bn. The chain reaction occurred at 1300 BST on 13 August, 1957. Supernoah, the name of the building where it happened, has been demolished. It is one of 99 facilities cleared from the 140 acre (56 hectare) site so far. Decommissioning is expected to be completed by 2033. The event at Dounreay was the first time a chain reaction had taken place in Scotland and meant nuclear power could be sustained and controlled. The area of Dounreay was farmland until 1954, when the government selected it as the location for the national centre for research and development of fast breeder reactors, a new type of atomic energy. Opened in 1955, it operated for 40 years. More recently, the mothballed plant has been dogged by the discoveries of rogue radioactive particles on nearby beaches linked to historic leaks at the complex.

- Dounreay achieves first Scottish chain reaction, August 13, 1957.[3]

On April 1, 2005, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) took over ownership of the site, with the UKAEA remaining as operator. Decommissioning of the Dounreay site is planned to bring it to an interim state of care and surveillance by 2036, and as a brownfield site by 2336, at a total cost of £2.9 billion, as costed in 2005.

The total area devoted to the operation is over 1,200 acres, and the UKAEA site covers about 135 acres and employs some 1,400 people. The main occupant is AEA Technology, whose commercial activities include decommissioning, health physics, descaling of North Sea oil production pipes and the Silver II waste handling process. Other include Procord and BNFL (British Nuclear Fuels Limited). About £30 million per year goes into the local economy as wages and salaries. Dounreay represents 20% of Caithness GDP.

Site decommissioning

Dounreay Site Restoration Limited (DSRL) is the site licence company responsible for the closure programme at Dounreay, Britain's former centre of fast reactor research and development. DSRL has held the site licence, waste disposal authorisation and other necessary legal permits for managing the site since April 1, 2008. Before then, the site was managed by the UK Atomic Energy Authority. DSRL operates under contract to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

DSRL has been steadily improving its methods and techniques since it took over, and the original schedule is regularly reviewed, and improved as work progresses. The current timescale is always detailed in the so-called Lifetime Plan, and this should be consulted for the applicable milestones at any given time, and is published on the DSRL web site. [4]

As a result of the ongoing decommissioning and reduction in the site as it is cleared, an estimated 2,000 jobs will disappear over the next 15 years, up to 2016. DSRL, which has the largest single workforce at the plant (about 900 in 2011), has already shed some 300 staff over the preceding five years, and a £2.2 million programme was launched in 2011 to help employees of DSRL and its contractors to find new work. As well as DSRL, about 50 other companies are involved in demolishing and cleaning up the site.[5]

Dounreay dome repainting cancelled

Plans to repaint Dounreay's Fast Reactor dome were cancelled in 2011, saving some £500,000.

Repainting had previously been carried out as a matter of routine every 10 years to protect the dome's metal work, but DSRL said that following an assessment, the dome's steel had been deemed thick enough to last as protection until dismantling of the reactor within had been completed. [6]

The landmark dome, constructed to contain any contamination that might have been released during any failure in the development reactor, might have been kept on the site as a historic building, but this idea was dropped, and the spherical structure will be demolished when it is no longer needed.

Most active particle found in 2010

In 2010, a particle described as the most highly radioactive to be recovered so far was found on the seabed off Dounreay, and linked with the former nuclear plant - it was reported to contain 100 million becquerels (Bq) of radiation. The Dounreay Particles Advisory Group (DPAG) considers radioactivity greater than 1 million Bq of Caesium 137 to be a health risk.

The particle was found by a team cleaning up the seabed using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Such particles of Caesium 137 are filings from nuclear fuel rods which were reprocessed at Dounreay during the 1960s and 1970s, and flushed into the sea through the plant's liquid discharge pipe. Ever since, particles have been appearing on local beaches. 429 fragments were recovered from the seabed since the start of the 2010 phase in August, with DSRL noting that 81 were classed as "significant". Left on skin, a particle measured above 1 million Bq could cause serious ulceration within one to two weeks, according to DPAG. The remaining 348 particles were categorised as "relevant" and "minor".

The operation has recovered 1,533 fragments from the seabed.[7]

Site clearance led to unusual complaint

In March 2011, DSRL received a rare complaint from a member of the public, citing noisee from a police firing range at the Dounreay nuclear complex. Dounreay Site Restoration Limited (DSRL) suspect the demolition of buildings on the site has removed a buffer to shots on the range.

Structures on the Caithness complex are being pulled down as part of the decommissioning of Dounreay.

The site is policed by the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, and there had been no change to the weapons used, and DSRL suggested that the ongoing demolition of buildings as the site is cleared meant that buffering of the noise from the range had changed. The company said that alternative methods would be sought to reduce the noise from the firing range.[8]

DSRL donates equipment to Fukushima

Following the magnitude 9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami which occurred in March 2011, events which combined to devastate the site of six nuclear reactors at Fukushima in Japan, DSRL was reported to have collected a van load of respirators, hand-held radiation survey kits, masks and suits, which were surplus to requirements, and donated them to help those working on the Fukushima site.[9]

In light of the circumstances surrounding the events which led to the devastation of the Fukushima nuclear power planr, the company leading the demolition of the nuclear plant at Dounreay has reported on the site's ability to withstand an earthquake or tsunami:

Dounreay Site Restoration Limited's (DSRL) report draws on work commissioned in 1996 and 2003 that considered the threats posed by a tidal wave, either caused by an earthquake or an underwater rock slide.

The company said the reports concluded that Dounreay was in "a very seismically stable area" and, due to this stability, a tsunami was unlikely to occur from an earthquake.

The reports' researchers looked at a tsunami which happened 7,000 years ago, caused by a rock slide near Norway. It resulted in a wave 4m (13ft) high.

Researchers concluded a similar event would have a minimal effect on Dounreay.

DSRL said: "Due to the decommissioning, none of the reactors or waste storage facilities on the site require any cooling, unlike at Fukushima.

"A nitrogen 'blanket' is maintained at the Dounreay Fast Reactor to cover the liquid metal remaining in the reactor to prevent it reacting with air, and the back-up supplies would last for several days.
- Dounreay reports on tsunami and earthquake resilience.[10]

New contract for decommissioning work awarded in 2011

In November 2011, Babcock Dounreay Partnership (BDP) was awarded the decommissioning contract for the disused experimental fast reactor plant. It won the contract against rival company Caithness solutions. A three month transition period will see BDP take over the work in April 2012.

Key to a successful bid was that the winner should be able to accelerate the existing 2038 closure date by at least six years, and reduce the costs by at least £500 million.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) said that the £5 million tender exercise would more than pay for itself in terms of savings, and that that the managerial change would not affect workers employed by site licence company DSRL.[11]

Work commenced on low-level radioactive waste store in 2011

Work on a £100 million store for 240,000 tonnes of low-level radioactive waste began on the site in November 2011. The type of material which will stored includes paper, rags, tools, glass, concrete, and clothing contaminated by radioactivity. These vaults will be monitored for some 300 years, by which time the type of radioactivity concerned will have decayed to 95% of its original level when stored.

The first two of up to six vaults, each about the size of a football pitch and buried 20 metres (65 ft) deep will be constructed first, late to be covered with earth and landscaped.

Although not confirmed at this stage, it is possible that a small number of highly shielded sheds may be constructed on the site, to contain 20,000 tonnes of more highly radioactive waste.

Approximately 100 tonnes of nuclear fuel remain on the site, and is due to be transported to a nuclear reprocessing plant, beginning in 2012.

150 tonnes of intermediate level waste is also planned to be removed from the site and sent to Belgium for storage. This material is due be shipped by sea as part of a long standing inter-government agreement signed many years ago when highly enriched nuclear fuel from all over the world was reprocessed at Dounreay. Belgian contractors will collect and transport the material.[12]

Waste transportation by train confirmed for 2012

Following a period of consultation, it was confirmed in November 2011 that 44 tonnes of breeder material would be shipped by train from the site to the nuclear reprocessing facilities at Sellafield in Cumbria, commencing summer 2012. This is said to represent half of the spent nuclear fuel which remained on the site. Local processing was costed at £65 million (since the site ceased to carry out such work itself more than ten years ago), while sending the material some 300 miles to Sellafield was estimated at £60 million. Reprocessing the breeder material converts it to a form suitable for fuelling future reactors.

Friend of the Earth Scotland provided some unhelpful and mischievous remarks.[13]

Once this material has been removed, the NDA still has the remaining high level material to deal with, which contains plutonium within unirridiated mixed oxide (MOX) fuel. MOX contains more than one oxide of fissile material, typically plutonium plus natural uranium, reprocessed uranium, or depleted uranium.[14][15]

New firing range proposed for Civil Nuclear Constabulary

Following the complaint mentioned above, arising from the changes to the site layout, it was proposed that a new range be planned at the nearby Forss Business Park, with the cost of £1.6 million to be met by the NDA as part of its commitment to maintaining the site. The Civil Nuclear Constabulary is an armed force tasked with protecting the country's nuclear materials.[16]

HMS Vulcan

HMS Vulcan was commissioned between c. 1972 and 1981, having formerly been known as the Admiralty Research Test Establishment. In 1981, the HMS prefix was dropped, and it became the Vulcan Naval Reactor Test Establishment (NRTE).

It was also known as the Royal Naval Nuclear Propulsion Test and Training Establishment, but accurate dates have not been given for this designation.

Vulcan Nuclear Reactor Test Establishment

Vulcan NTRE entrance, 2007
Vulcan NRTE entrance
© Phil Williams

The Vulcan Naval Reactor Test Establishment (NRTE) is a Ministry of Defence (MoD) establishment which houses prototype nuclear propulsion plants of the type operated by the Royal Navy in its submarine fleet. The establishment is responsible for testing the prototype nuclear reactors to be used in Royal Navy submarines, and the original prototype reactor developed for use in Trident submarines remains there.

The VTOM (Vulcan Trials, Operation and Maintenance) contract ensures that Vulcan will be central to the Navy’s submarine programme until at least 2014.

Work first began on the establishment in 1957, and the first Navy reactor, Core A, went critical eight years later, in 1965. Core A, and the following version B, Z, G, and H, were built by Rolls-Royce, Derby, which has been responsible for operating the reactors since the facility was commissioned. Staff are primarily Roll-Royce workers, with some 300 working there in 2003, compared to a Royal Navy complement of five.

Each reactor type is sent to Vulcan for test prior to deployment at sea, in order to detect any problems that may exits in any design while the reactor is accessible, rather than built into an operational submarine. The age of the reactor under test is always at least two years in advance of the operational units at sea, this allows data to be gathered and fed back for prediction of actual operation, and to assist the design and development of new reactors.

The first reactor was designated Dounreay Submarine Prototype 1 (DSMP), and since it was effectively the same as fitted to operational boats, it served as a full scale training rig which could be used to train RN nuclear plant operators. Core A became depleted and burnt out by 1967, by which time a reactor simulator had been developed, and operator training was transferred to this in the same year.

The depleted Core A was removed in March 1968, the plant was overhauled, and Core B was installed. This achievement marked was the first time a a submarine reactor had been refuelled in this country. Core B went critical in June 1968, outperformed Core A, and and was finally closed down in 1972.

On May 18, 1970, the establishment was commissioned as HMS Vulcan, having previously been the Admiralty Research Test Establishment.

A major refit of the DSMP in 1974 saw the installation of Core Z, which lasted for more than ten years, and is fitted to the Navy’s current fleet of hunter-killer Swiftsure and Trafalgar-class boats.

When Core Z was depleted, the DSMP was defuelled and decontaminated, and converted into a simulator by replacing the reactor with a powerful electric heater. This allowed the temperature and pressure of a reactor powered system to be replicated up to the point of shut-down. The DSMP was renamed LAIRD (Loss of coolant Accident Investigation Rig Dounreay). LAIRD allowed the most difficult accident conditions to be simulated using real systems, and more than 250 trials over 5 years proved that the Rolls-Royce engineering could cope with a series of simulated conditions, including coolant loss.

The old DSMP was replaced by the Shore Test Facility (STF).

Core H, the latest reactor as of 2003, is installed in the STF and being trialled successfully in advance of installation.

While the primary business of Vulcan is the testing of submarine reactors, it also ensures that all operating procedures are current and are maintained with the tight safety parameters which apply to the operation of such equipment. The STF allows operating procedures to be trialled in the same way as the reactors, to ensure changes and updates have been correctly incorporated.

The facility also dismantles and examines the burnt out reactor cores, checking them against predicted operating parameters and providing feedback to the engineers and designers working on the next generation of reactors.[17]

Vulcan closure mooted in 2011

In November 2001, the UK Junior Defence Ministry Peter Luff issued a written statement that said no future use was foreseen for the Vulcan facility, which has been used to test submarine powerplants for over 40 years. The announcement came in the wake of a review which concluded that the UK’s future nuclear submarine fleet no longer required a shore-based reactor to test and trial the propulsion systems deployed by the vessels. He made it clear that from 2015 Vulcan would have no role in the servicing of the fleet, which would be powered by a new-generation of pressurised water reactor.

Mr Luff said it was still to be decided whether Vulcan would be reduced to care and maintenance after 2015, or go in to full decommissioning mode. In either case, there would be major cuts in the permanent workforce of 256 employed by contractors Rolls Royce, and in the work local contractors currently get at the site. [18] [19]


1 Dounreay, World War Two Defences in Caithness.

2 Dounreay - The Cold War connection

3 August 13, 1957, Dounreay achieves first Scottish chain reaction, BBC News, August 12, 2007.

4 Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd - Lifetime Plan Retrieved 14 March 14, 2011.

5 BBC News - Thousands of jobs to go at Dounreay over next 15 years Retrieved March 14, 2011.

6 BBC News - Dounreay dome paint job cancelled Retrieved March 14, 2011.

7 BBC News - Caithness seabed fragment among most radioactive found Retrieved 14 March 2011 01:32:13.

8 BBC News - Noise complaint over Dounreay police firing range Retrieved March 23, 2011.

9 BBC News - Dounreay nuclear plant donations for Fukushima Retrieved April 01, 2011.

10 BBC News - Dounreay reports on tsunami and earthquake resilience Retrieved 05 May 2011.

11 New company takes over Dounreay clean-up | Highlands & Islands | STV News Retrieved November 26, 2011.

12 BBC News - Work starts on Dounreay low-level waste store Retrieved November 26, 2011.

13 BBC News - Councils to get some Dounreay-Sellafield train details Retrieved November 27, 2011.

14 BBC News - Trains to take Dounreay nuclear fuel to Sellafield Retrieved November 27, 2011.

15 Trains will transport nuclear fuel from Dounreay | Highlands & Islands | STV News Retrieved November 27, 2011.

16 New firing range planned for Dounreay-based police Retrieved March 08, 2012.

17 Navy News. Vulcan leads the way for Navy nuclear reactors, January 7, 2003.

18 BBC News - Vulcan MoD nuclear site in Caithness could be scrapped Retrieved November 08, 2011.

19 Vulcan nuclear test site to close | Highlands & Islands | STV News Retrieved November 08, 2011.

External links

Related Canmore/RCAHMS and ScotlandsPlaces (SP) entries:-


Dounreay DFR

, 1968
DFR 1968
© Stanley Howe
, 1995
DFR 1995
© Row17
, 2005
DFR 2005
© Dorcas Sinclair

Aerial views



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