A nuclear site at the northernmost point of the British mainland has provided a whole region with jobs for sixty years. But soon the site will close and the question is: What happens now?
Jesper Gynther and Javier West report-
Thursday the 21st of July 1988 was a black day in the history of the Scottish region of Caithness and North Sutherland.
Although not many of the locals remember the exact date, it has had a big impact on them. Because that was the day that the British government decided to close the Dounreay nuclear research facility.
It was by far the biggest employer in the region providing jobs to over 2,000 people. Author Stephen Cashmore describes in his book ‘Dounreay, the illustrated story’ that “many at Dounreay that afternoon felt as though the Last Day was at hand (…) and positive talk about the site was heard no more”.
At midnight on March 31st, 1994, the nuclear reactor at Dounreay shut down for the last time and instead of being an active research facility, Dounreay was now under decommissioning – in other words: being pulled apart.
Over two decades later, on a mild December day in 2017, we go to this northern part of Scotland to see if hope still remains among the locals.
After a four-hour train ride from Inverness through the big mountains and astonishing scenery of the Scottish Highlands we get to the flat farming county of Caithness where our destination is to be found: Thurso, the northernmost town of the British mainland.
The town transformed rapidly when the British government on the 1st of March 1954 decided to place the centre of the United Kingdom’s fast reactor search and development programme only 14 km west of Thurso on the north coast of Caithness.
In the span of three years, the town had tripled in size to around 9,000 people, over 1,500 new houses were built and now there was also a supermarket, a bookshop, and even a grocer who sold avocado pears.
It strikes us that even with Dounreay under decommissioning not so much has changed. There are still supermarkets, plenty of pubs, bed and breakfast-accommodations, a museum, and a cinema.
We also see a high school and even a small university college and the town has only experienced a minor population decline to now around 8,000.
The reason why Thurso is still blooming is that many of the locals still work at Dounreay – now on the decommissioning of the site. It is expected to be finished between 2030-2033 whereafter the workforce will be reduced to a couple of security guards who will make sure no one enters the abandoned premises.
The rest of them will have to find other jobs and the question is: Can this happen?
The nuclear woman with no secrets
At Dounreay’s public information office in the middle of Thurso, we meet June Love, the community relations manager.
The information office is made so local people – or snoopy journalism students – have a place to go and ask questions on how the decommissioning is going.
Ms Love seems to be the right person to explain the situation of the nuclear site to the locals. She knows the community very well and the role that Dounreay plays in it because she herself was born and bred in Thurso.
Like many others from the area, her whole family is connected to the site. Her grandparents moved from Dundee to Thurso in the 1950s shortly after the construction of the site and soon after her own parents followed, together with two sets of uncles and aunts.
“If it wasn’t for Dounreay none of my family would even be here,” says Ms Love while bursting out in a warm laugh which tells us that she hasn’t regretted her ancestors’ decision to move there.
It wasn’t a surprise that she started working at the nuclear site when she was young and neither that she has been there ever since. She started off as a typist and after going through the communication department she eventually ended up in the socioeconomic and stakeholders department which she manages now.
Her mouth moves as fast as the roadrunner’s legs when she starts talking about the history of Dounreay.
The site has had a dominant impact on the economic and social development of Caithness. Around 11,500 people have been direct employees at Dounreay over the years and at least the same amount have worked as contractors. In addition, Dounreay has been responsible for training over 2,000 apprentices.
The site has been an example for other nuclear facilities around the world with many scientists attending training courses or meetings to learn about the site’s world-leading technological advancements.
She tells that the decommissioning of Dounreay plays an important role in the economy too, injecting approximately 80 million pounds a year into the economy of Caithness and Sutherland.
While hearing her tell about the site we are amazed to find that kind of disclosure from somebody working in the nuclear sector.
“Not many secrets are kept around here. So everybody knows what happens around the site. We don’t hide things.”
“Our job is to make everybody feel comfortable and we are seen as very open and transparent.”
So far it has not been difficult to do that since no people have lost their job at the site. They continue to employ roughly the same number of people as they have always done: Around 1,200 direct staff and then 1,000 who are in and out doing contracts working for local companies.
However, in 2017 they went through their first ever round of voluntary retirement and the workforce will continue to diminish gradually until 2030-2033 when the decommissioning is expected to come to an end.
Getting people to accept that Dounreay is closing has never been an easy task and Ms Love is not looking forward to the day when the first redundancies are announced.
“I still think it’s gonna be the biggest shock the first time we say we have to announce the first load of redundancies. There’s gonna be a: ‘What do you mean? You cant!’. But we have to.”
However, she feels that reality is starting to sink in and estimates that it has taken around 10 years for the Dounreay workforce to accept that the site is actually closing.
The man in denial
Since Dounreay plays a major role in the local society it is not just the workers at the site who continue to hope that it will not close down. One of the – you might call – deniers is the local, independent politician Donnie Mackay.
He has served as a councillor at the Highland Council for 15 years and is now in his final term before retirement. Throughout his years as councillor, he has remained doubtful whether the closing will even happen.
“I can’t see it being shut down by then. I really can’t,” he tells us over the phone as he is out of Thurso attending his duties in Inverness where the council is based.
His strong Scottish accent is sometimes hard to follow but it is not difficult to understand where he stands: He would very much welcome a continuation of the nuclear site since that would guarantee economic safety for the local community as it has done for decades.
The Scottish Government, however, is not at all in favour of nuclear energy. In 2008 the Scottish Parliament voted against building more nuclear power stations in Scotland and today only two nuclear sites are still active with a permit that expires by 2025. Besides Dounreay, two other sites are being decommissioned at the moment.
While some might call Mackay a fighter who won’t give up, others may see him as a stranded whale which refuses to realise that even the strongest tide won’t bring it back into the sea.
In our conversation with him, he repeats the sentence “we are so far north” three times. He thinks it will be difficult to create new jobs because of the great distance to the rest of the UK. And the distance also makes it hard to catch the attention of the Scottish Government in Edinburgh.
When we ask him if he sees the future of Caithness with positive eyes or with fear, he again mentions the five words.
“We are so far north that we do fear for it,” he says.
He knows from personal experience that it is hard to get young people to stay in Caithness and North Sutherland if they don’t have career opportunities there. His own son left south to Aberdeen to work in the oil industry when he was 20 and hasn’t returned since.
“If they first leave home they don’t come back here.”
As for now, the unemployment rate in the Highland Council Area is very low at 3.8 per cent, but he admits that this could change overnight if Dounreay reaches final closing.
What this will mean for the demographics is uncertain. But one thing is sure; Caithness will do its best not to experience what Sutherland suffered from in the 19th century with the Highland Clearances, a set of evictions of farmers to clear land for cattle. This resulted in Sutherland becoming one of Europe’s least densely populated regions at now about 2.3 people per km2 in comparison to 14.4 in Caithness and 68.4 in Scotland.
Mackay, however, is not worried. Because of Dounreay, whole sets of families of different generations now live in Caithness and North Sutherland – like the case of earlier mentioned June Love. Even without Dounreay, Mackay thinks people will prefer to stay in the area to be close to their family members.
“And it is a good community. It is a lovely area to bring up a family,” he says.
But something also tells us that his certainty regarding the population staying stable is accompanied with a bit of doubt.
“I think it will stay quite stable. I really do. Well, that is what I hope.”
The next – and final – chapter can be read tomorrow (17 January 2018) on Euroscope Magazine.
Read chapter 2