The nuclear site Dounreay is closing but new opportunities appear. The question is: Will it be enough to provide the locals at the northernmost point of the British mainland with a sustainable future?
Jesper Gynther and Javier West report-
Another December day rises in Thurso and we move on with our quest of finding the answer to the pressing question: How exactly are Caithness and North Sutherland going to keep their society alive without the nuclear site Dounreay? And what is being done right now to replace the over 2,000 jobs?
A part of the answer might be found through the Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership.
It is an association established back in late 2007 comprised of the Scottish Government, the Highland Council, Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd and other local businesses with the common goal of providing new jobs to balance those lost at the Dounreay site.
The Programme Manager for the partnership is Eann Sinclair. His job consists of trying to get different companies to settle down in the area and therefore he has his hands in nearly everything that is going on at the moment: Almost as a human octopus, you might say.
Over the phone, he tells us that in the past 10 years they have focused on getting the government bodies to invest in infrastructure. That has resulted in investments on the harbours in Thurso and Wick (the second biggest town in Caithness) and improving the education infrastructure which consists of both a university college in Thurso and high schools in Wick and Thurso.
Also, digital infrastructure, which nowadays is crucial for getting companies to settle in an area, has been high on the agenda. The percentage of super-fast broadband has been increased from around 4 per cent to 86 per cent after a multi-million-pound investment.
This has resulted in an increase of competitiveness so they now have no disadvantages compared to the rest of the United Kingdom or other regions of Europe.
“Whilst that level of investment hasn’t been directly creating jobs we think it has resulted in an increase of companies that are working here. Also, companies that may not otherwise have considered coming,” Sinclair says.
But even with big investments in infrastructure, it will be a huge challenge to attract enough jobs to replace all those which will be lost at Dounreay.
To us, it almost seems as difficult as when the coal mines in the south of Scotland were closed in the 1980s and 1990s and whole communities whose life was built around them had to reinvent their economies.
We call Dr Jim Phillips, senior lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow, to hear if those communities have had luck doing this. He has written two books on the miners’ strike of 1984-1985 in Scotland and is currently working on a book about the Scottish coal miners’ search for collective economic security from the 1920s to the 1980s, so he surely must know.
He tells us that many of the communities are still struggling to find new jobs with a lot of people having to commute to other big cities, especially Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The positive thing is that the population number in the old coal mine communities has remained quite stable since the last mines closed around the millennium – partly because of the opportunity to commute to bigger cities but also because there are strong family ties within the communities.
But commuting doesn’t seem like a feasible solution for Caithness or North Sutherland since it takes eight hours a day by public transport and five hours in a car to go back and forth to Inverness, the only major city in the Highlands with around 50,000 residents.
The only way forward for Caithness and North Sutherland seems to be by creating new jobs. But where will the jobs come from?
The answer might be blowing in the wind. Literally.
Compared to yesterday when we arrived in Thurso, the weather has changed and we now experience – maybe in an extreme way – how strong the wind can be in the northernmost part of the British mainland.
The winter storm Caroline is raging over the Highlands creating frustration among locals and visitors with a force of up to 144 km/h. Due to the strong gusts, the trains and buses are cancelled keeping us in Thurso for a little longer than we expected.
We seek shelter in the local museum where we meet a woman who desperately needs to go to Inverness. She ends up paying £230 in order to persuade a taxi driver to battle the storm and make the 175 km long drive.
Later in the day, we get back to our Airbnb-host, Richard, who has allowed us to stay another night. It turns out he got off earlier from work because a tree fell down on the road preventing him from going to Dounreay where he works. From his window, we can spot the shore of the Atlantic Ocean where waves are battering a ship making it swing from side to side.
On a day like this, it is hard to see how wind could be a positive thing for Caithness and North Sutherland. But, actually, it might.
The Beatrice project, an offshore wind farm, is currently being constructed off the coast of Caithness and in 2019, once fully operational, it will generate electricity to light up 450,000 houses.
At the cost of £2.6bn it is one of the largest ever private infrastructure investments in Scotland and since the operational base will be based in Wick, Caithness will benefit from the project with new jobs.
The wind farm company have also made a community fund; The Partnership Fund for Highland which is worth a total of £3m over a five-year period and will cover the communities on the east coast of Caithness and Sutherland. The fund is designed to develop and encourage local initiatives and in that way, the wind farm company follows in the footsteps of the Dounreay site which also had – and still has – a community fund.
Sinclair is positive about the project and has noticed that the wind farm is already looking for people to take up the positions which will consist of taking care of the maintenance of the 84 wind turbines.
“We are expecting about a hundred direct jobs to come out of the Beatrice project which is good news,” he says.
This sector might even provide more jobs as there is a similar project to build a bigger offshore wind farm in the same waters as the Beatrice. The project, which is called “Moray”, has not yet reached financial closure, but if it does, Sinclair hopes the maintenance base of the Moray site will be placed in Wick as well.
It must be taken into account that the Moray enterprise is a quantitatively bigger project than the Beatrice one and therefore has the potential for many more jobs – around 100 more.
Deep in the sea or into outer space
Not only wind can be of great potential. There are other hidden natural resources at the sea, or under the sea to be more precise.
In the waters between Caithness and the Orkney Islands – an area called Pentland Firth – you’ll find some of Europe’s strongest tides with reported speeds of up to 30 km/h.
The company Atlantis Resources is trying to take advantage of this by making the MeyGen tidal plant which is currently under construction.
According to the company, it is the largest planned tidal stream project in the world and engineers at the universities of Oxford and Edinburgh calculated in 2014 that about half of all Scottish houses could receive their total needs of electricity from the tidal plant.
The project has several phases and as for now, just the first one has been carried out. However, it is uncertain if the final stages will ever achieve completion since it hasn’t reached financial closure yet. The British government already rejected subsidising it and private investors may be more interested in wind energy as it is three times as cheaper to produce than tidal energy.
Although Caithness and North Sutherland have hardly benefited from the tidal project in form of new jobs, Sinclair hopes maintenance positions could be created if the project eventually reaches its final stages.
Those kinds of jobs are very important for Sinclair and the partnership.
“We have benefitted locally from the construction jobs. But they are short-term jobs. We are looking for long-term jobs,” he says.
That the renewable sector is becoming more important to Caithness and North Sutherland is also noticeable in the local education system. The North Highland College, which is based in Thurso and is one of the 13 academic partners of the University of the Highlands and Islands, is already beginning to offer education in engineering in order to ensure that the locals have a chance of getting a job at the wind farm or the tidal plant.
Another major project that the partnership is hoping can create many jobs is a satellite launch site near Dounreay. Again, they are lucky because of their geographical position because certain orbits can only be accessed in the latitudes in which Caithness and North Sutherland are located.
It is the UK Space Agency which is planning the satellite launch facility. It will be for small-scale and small investment devices and “not a Cape Canaveral” as Sinclair highlights in reference to NASA’s massive rocket launch site in Florida.
The facility has the potential to create 300 long-term sustainable jobs but it is in a very early stage and substantial environmental investigation must be done before deciding if it is an appropriate place for it.
However, the partnership is not only trying to attract new jobs which aren’t already in the area. They are also trying to keep some of the jobs which are connected to the Dounreay site. Those workers have a huge knowledge on how to decommission a nuclear site and as consultants, they could help decommission other nuclear plants in Scotland, the UK or other places in the world – while still living in Caithness and North Sutherland.
So, there is a lot on Sinclair’s plate at the moment which indeed is good news for the area. And the partnership will continue to identify opportunities. Particularly opportunities where the area either has geographic advantages like offshore wind, tidal, or a vertical launch project. Or where they have an advantage because of their large skilled workforce.
“Those are the ideal opportunities,” he says.
But the question remains: Will it be enough?
According to calculations from the partnership, the future looks promising.
By 2027 they expect 1,600 new jobs to be created in Caithness and North Sutherland which – by then – actually will be 170 more jobs than those lost at Dounreay.
The jobs are expected to come from the projects mentioned earlier but also from others. But since it is uncertain if some of them will fall through, nothing can be guaranteed.
Sinclair, however, is positive about the future and believes there will be enough jobs created by the time Dounreay closes.
“I think there will be huge challenges along the way. But there have been huge challenges along the way in the past 10 years as well and we’ve met them all head on. And that’s the way we will continue to work,” he says.
When we later in the evening go for a beer in one of Thurso’s pubs, we realize that some of Sinclair’s work has already paid off. We meet a man who dares us to a game of pool and he tells us he is one of the new people who has started working for the Beatrice wind farm project at the operational base in Wick.
Soon after, he pockets the 8-ball, with all our balls still remaining on the table, and leaves us smiling. Maybe it is a sign that the future is also smiling at Caithness and North Sutherland – even without Dounreay.
Read chapter 1