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

Comments (8)

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  1. David McCann says:

    I wish you all the luck in the world, but today’s response by Westminster, that Scotland should pay for the decommissioning of Trident and Faslane, fills me only with anger at their sheer audacity.
    It really is time we took off the kid gloves, and told them to take their union and shove it where the sun dont shine!

  2. bellacaledonia says:

    Absolutely David. That was brazen cheek. Now the NDA want to transport 44 tonnes of highly radioactive material from Dounreay to Sellafield by train. What the hell are they thinking? This will take at least five years transporting and put every community on the railway line from Thurso southwards at risk should an accident occur. Madness.

    Kevin W

  3. Tearlach MacDaid says:

    Interesting factoid. The UK spends about £1B per year on ROCs – Renewable Obligation Certificates – the financial instrument that encourages the development of Renewable Energy, including the burgeoning wave and tidal industry in the waters of the Pentland Firth.

    The NDA’s budget is £2,2B per annum. £2.2B per annum.

    Yes we are paying twice as much to clear up 60 years of Nuclear, as we are on supporting the development of Renewables.

  4. ianbeag says:

    Can anyone confirm if the cost of building, running and decommissioning Dounreay far exceeded the value of electricity produced by the plant during it’s lifetime? In the 1970’s one of it’s selling points was that the cost of producing electricity using nuclear fusion would be so low in cost that, theoretically the power could be given to consumers free of charge. With the cost of decommissioning now at £3 Billion and a part of the the local landscape blighted for ever more – was it worth it?

  5. George Gunn says:

    Dounreay was never about producing electricity – that was a a bi-product. Dounreay was a research and development establishment – the DFR and the PFR were both experiments, which is why it was all placed on the north coast of the Highlands. If you wanted a power station you would not site it 130 miles north of Inverness. I remember as a bairn when we would have the inevitable winter power cuts and my poor mother pulling her hair out as her brand new deep freeze dripped everything onto the scullery floor. There we were huddled round our peat fire and eight miles away were two nuclear reactors. In Thurso High School we were taught that nuclear power was the natural way of things, like Christianity and the family, and that electricity would soon be so plentiful it would be free. The hard reality is that after the Sellafield fire they needed a new source of nuclear fuel for their warheads. That is what Dounreay was all about. The cost has laways been hidden from view. The transportation of 40 tonnes of uranioum and plutonium by rail from Thurso to Drigg in Cumbria is for commercial reasons and no other. What sixty years of the Official Secrets Act has meant is that the UKAEA managers, as were, and now the NDA do not know what the truth is. The nuclear industry is the closest to a dream world you will ever come across.

  6. bellacaledonia says:

    I also mind the power cuts in Thurso when the national grid connections to Caithness went down in 1978. I was working at Dounreay at the time, on the PFR, and the reactor was incapable of delivering electricity 7 miles to the east in an emergency. It was capable of a potantially dangerous accident that year though, and the year before too. The 77 shaft explosion is still being cleaned up at great expense. I was studying for my O Grades in May 77 and lived on the edge of Thurso beside the moors at High Ormlie. Even in my bedroom, some seven miles away, I heard the explosion at Dounreay that night in May 77. Not that anyone was told about it. It was all hushed up. Staff werent even evacuated from the Dounreay site! It only came out many years later what really happened. The people running Dounreay put lives at risk rather than admit the true scale of the danger. Nuclear power, as George says, is a fantasy world where truth becomes lies and lies become truth.


  7. bellacaledonia says:

    On that “incident” in 1977:

    “In 1977, the shaft exploded, blowing the lid off and scattering hot particles. It would not be strictly true to say that the incident was covered up. After rumours of the accident reached the press, UKAEA issued a news release entitled “minor incident at solid waste facility”. The word “explosion” was not mentioned.

    The full story did not emerge until 1995. The hole had been used to dispose of everything from rubber gloves to fissile waste. It is not hard to see why this dirty bomb went off: sodium and other reactive chemicals had been dumped with the radioactive materials. One estimate suggests that around 2.2kg of plutonium and 81kg of uranium-235 ended up there. But the auditing was patchy: some of the disposals were never recorded; some of the records later disappeared. In 1998, the Guardian discovered that a second hole had been dug, and was still in use despite the demands by government inspectors that it be closed. This one was slightly safer, as it was lined with concrete. But it contained a similar mixture of fissile materials and reactive chemicals, which had not been kept apart. Underground fires had already broken out.”

    GEORGE MONBIOT (Guardian, 12 Sep 2006)

  8. Personally I would prefer it if all the high level waste was off Scottish soil for good if possible sadly that will be wishful thinking on my part.

    No2NuclearPower and/or Rob Edwards sites have a lot of articles on this industry.

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