Decommisioning Dounreay: Babcocks or Starbucks?
Recently I was stuck between a conference where mobiles were verboten and writing a screenplay where everything other than the work in hand was verboten. But I had this desperate need to know whom the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority had awarded the contract to decommission Dounreay. So taking five minutes to nip out of Eden Court Theatre to text a friend and I asked the question – who was it? I burst out laughing that evening when I switched my phone back on and read the answer: “Starbucks”. Of course my friend meant “Babcock’s” and whether it was the height of political satire or a Freudian slip I have never had the heart to find out.
But one thing we will find out, now that Babcock and their all-American associates in the “Dounreay Partnership” have been announced as the winners of the two horse race for the decommissioning of Dounreay (the other nag in this chase was Amec, the privatised engineering arm of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and their partners Energy Solutions from Salt Lake City) is just what sort of future for Caithness – and by extension, Scotland – there is now that the “almost” £3 billion has found an operator. The press love it when £2.7 billion can become “almost £3 billion”.
By the time the job at Dounreay is finally done it probably will cost in excess of £3 billion for decommissioning nuclear reactors is big business. Yet it is an “almost” accidental largesse for Babcock and their consortium beneficiaries CH2M Hill and URS, who are also both wholly US companies, in as much as when such enterprises as Dounreay were begun in the early 1950’s the idea of decommissioning them did not appear as expenditure in the business plan, if there was such a thing back in the days of Dan Dare and shiny chromium plated dreams. The race to produce uranium and plutonium corroded that dream and obscured the inevitability of an end game. Certainly the vast amounts of cash involved were beyond the imaginings of the post-war planners. Rationing had recently ended when the race for nuclear “energy” began. There is a certain amount of ugly reincarnation in this.
But here we are at the beginning of the end game and like so much else in UK plc we see huge percentages of resources going from public ownership to private enterprise. Except that it is not “enterprise” in the strictest sense – the Babcock Dounreay Partnership, to give them their official name, were the “preferred bidder” and the money being spent is still coming from the tax payer. In short – it is the value of the benefit to the public interest which is being lost, in as much as it is being transferred to a private US concern. There will be a certain local, residual, benefit in jobs on site and on related activity but for all intents and purposes the money trail leads from the UK Treasury, via Babcock, across the Atlantic to the USA. Much has been made in the local press about Babcock having a London HQ. This is perfectly true but they also have five other HQ’s worldwide with a centre of operations in New York and around 30 other centres and bases dotted across the planet. To follow the reincarnation theme – Babcock Engineering have gone through several reincarnations from an outfit who made boilers on the Clyde to Babcock International plc to which an “almost” £3 billion contract is a small part of their operation.
There is a definite sense that we are entering a new chapter of our history in the north of Scotland and that the social and economic realities we have known since 1955 are going to change. For many this “uncertainty” is a thing of both worry and fear. For others it is a thing to be embraced, to be seen as an opportunity. For those of us who were born in the mid-fifties Dounreay has been both a constant presence and a transformative agent – for Dounreay changed Caithness forever and we are that changeling generation.
Come 2038 – the date for the completion of decommissioning and when the “almost” £3 billion will be spent and the 20,000 tonnes of highly radioactive waste will be interred in silos at Buldoo, near Dounreay but “off-site”, and then can be added to our glorious burial mound archaeological heritage: by that time I will either be dead or 82. So what are we actually left with now and what about our world post-Dounreay?
Dounreay arrived on our northern coast under a cloud of secrecy, half-truths, propaganda, convenience and military-industrial necessity. Uranium and Plutonium were needed for the Cold War that never was fought and the nuclear reactors for the free electricity no-one ever received. For 57 years the majority in Caithness have, on the other hand, enjoyed the material comfort of wages, job and house. The “Atomicer” migration has been absorbed, much as the Norse were by the Picts, by the native population and in the west of the county, most especially in Thurso (“Atomic City” as it used to be called on CB radio) has produced a strange, culturally confused, mongrel generation whose rump is now reduced to 876 direct jobs on site and who no doubt expect it to be, right up to the end, as a spokesman said last week, “business as usual”.
The fact is it was never a usual business. Pump primed and bank rolled by the British Government, protected from the real world of economic peaks and troughs, the UKAEA has created in Caithness a culture and a society which is finding it more difficult than many other post-industrial communities to come to terms with life after the beast. This, admittedly, has not been helped by there being no social or economic percentage benefit written into any of the contracts issued for the decommissioning of Dounreay and no matter what the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority or Babcock International will say the vast majority of the £3 billion will go over the Atlantic where, as I’ve indicated, the beating corporate heart of the Babcock Dounreay Partnership resides.
Meanwhile back on the Caithness croft we face depopulation and unemployment with all the social problems these twin spectres bring. The Westminster and Scottish Governments, the Highland Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise have all failed the people of Caithness, and again, by extension, the people of Scotland. But there is not much to be gained by crying over that: what we need is direct action and some structure to our possibilities.
It seems to me what Caithness badly needs is a Caithness Development Agency, set up immediately by the Scottish Government but staffed by local people who actually give a damn, who should pass legislation to reverse the lax fiscal chicanery which allows Cumbria to benefit from the decommissioning of Sellafield through contractual percentages for social and economic benefit but from which Caithness does not. Babcock, let us note, has undertaken the Sellafield decommissioning contract. In Caithness all we ask for is parity. The funds the Caithness Development Agency would have at its disposal – which, in part, could come from this percentage slicing – should go to small and medium enterprises in the county either as direct subsidy or as interest free loans – whatever is appropriate.
The CDA should also have power to acquire land that is not being used productively, to be given to those who can bring it into specific agricultural use, or for housing. Caithness should be declared a European Common Agricultural Policy Free Zone so that crofters and small farmers can actually benefit instead of the few big farmers who currently soak up most of the CAP subsidy. But the emphasis of the CDA must be to allow local people to work out their own future, to enable them to determine their own destiny.
This regeneration of local initiatives must be supported by the creation of a Caithness Co-operative Bank, which will be owned by its members – the account holders – and which should initially be financed from the tax raised in Caithness as a percentage of the Scottish tax take and redistributed, through the bank, to the people of Caithness both as a fiscal incentive and a secure financial facility.
Through a Caithness Development Agency and a Caithness Co-operative Bank the people of Caithness can construct their own economic strategy and create a culture of self determination – admittedly through work – which they have forgotten this past half century but which is in their cultural DNA and must be re-invigorated. Of course, these proposals are enough to give Highland Council officials, enterprise wonks and Scottish Ministers apoplexy.
There is not space here to go into details on how these two bodies, this twin approach, would work and I do add the qualification that I am a writer of poems and plays, not a social or economic planner. I only offer these suggestions and ideas because, so far – and it is getting late in the day – there is not one concrete idea on the table as to what is to be done, unless you include the £4 million recently made available to local groups and charities over twelve years as the fiscal benison of the opening of a new on-site low-level nuclear storage facility. “Dump”, to you and me. You can apply, if you so wish, for amounts of up to £20k which you may or may not get, depending on what the appointed “committee” (who they) decide and only if you have matching funding for your project. This is not planning or regeneration; it is beads and combs.
But one thing is clear: paternalism – whether it be huge industrial complexes which distort local equilibrium or feudal land ownership which denies any enterprise, or bawbees for the natives – have no place in a future Caithness. We must empower ourselves in order to achieve our potential as a people and a society and if we demand that our own Government give us the tools to do the job I can see no reason how they can refuse, then we can at least create something lasting.. Once the Caithness Development Agency and the Caithness Co-operative Bank are up and running then Government must step out of the picture and allow native flair and talent to fire its mettle and create a stable society for future generations to build on.
History tells us they are not good at this History also informs us that short-termism, however long it has been in the coming, ultimately gives us nothing. In many ways Babcock’s might as well be Starbucks. Who, nationally, would spot the difference and who, locally, would have the courage to speak out?
N.B. Since I wrote the above Babcock has announced that they are bringing the date for the completion of the decommissioning of Dounreay forward (or back?) by seventeen years to 2021. This makes everything I have outlined above more urgent and, tragically, less likely.
© George Gunn 2012