Atomic City Blues: From The Province Of The Cat

Atomic City Blues: From The Province Of The Cat by George Gunn

It’s not easy being green, as Joe Raposo had Kermit the Frog sing so philosophically on the TV in the 1970 Muppets. It is certainly not easy when you live in a small North Highland town dubbed “Atomic City” by the CB radio loving truck drivers who trawled up and down the A9 in the same decade. Thurso is to nuclear as Dublin is to Guinness. I am, give or take a year or two, the same age as the Dounreay dome and its historic fallout has tracked me all my life. The social and economic fallout has left a far greater and more problematic footprint on Thurso and Caithness which surrounds it and, I would argue, on Scotland as a whole. The radioactive pollution of the sea and the coastline is another thing altogether.

I live in peripheral Scotland, geographically and politically, where everyday reality is defined by how big your bank account is, where culture is a smart TV, holidays abroad and driving a 4X4. Atomic City is a hollowed out asteroid left over from the creation of the nuclear bomb. Dounreay was a research and development facility, an experiment. If the experiment went wrong… well, there were just a few choochters and sheep and it was a long, long way from London. If it was to be a “power station” then why was it sited on the North Caithness coast so far away from the concentration of electricity consumers?

Just so that you know there are two nuclear sites at Dounreay built on and around the site of the former WW2 airfield. The Nuclear Power Development Establishment site is owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) but was previously owned and run by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAE). Adjacent to this site is the Ministry of Defence Vulcan Nuclear Reactor Test Establishment. The two sites are have five nuclear reactors, three formerly owned and operated by the UKAEA and two by the Ministry of Defence. All these, according to Ukanian government legend, will enter an interim care and surveillance state by 2036, and become a brownfield site by 2336. Billions of pounds will be spent in the process and until it’s all done and radioactively dusted Atomic City will continue to enjoy its cryonic sleep. The local press will continue to bemoan the Scottish Government for having the tenacity to retain its anti-nuclear policy which ensures that through the with-holding of planning permission no new nuclear reactors will be built in Scotland.

This is just as well when you consider the not so divine comedy of the building of Hinkley Point C in Somerset. EDF, the French company which is building it, revealed this week the latest delay to Hinkley, which may not now open until 2031, well beyond its original decade-long schedule. Its costs have climbed to £35bn in 2015 prices, almost double the original forecast of £18bn in 2016. In today’s money Ukania’s first new nuclear plant in 30 years could cost £46bn. The spiralling costs were blamed on inflation, Covid and Brexit. You could add to this the Tories addiction to nuclear weapons. Despite what the Ukania government tell us there is no such thing as a civil nuclear programme – it is all military. The next planned plant, Sizewell in Suffolk, will incur equally mind numbing amounts of cash. If it is ever built.

Net Zero by 2050, what happened to that? The landmark 2015 Paris Agreement to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C, Rishi Sunak trashed in July last year when he authorised more carbon extraction from the North Sea, to “max out” Ukania’s oil and gas reserves, or “Drill, baby, drill!” as Donald Trump would have it.

These unfortunate facts have no bearing on the editorial of the John O Groat Journal which constantly demands that the continuing bubble-like dream of Atomic City must be preserved at all costs. The costs, of course, are the chronic under-development of and non-investment in the rest of Caithness and the Far North generally, as well as a deliberately denuded cultural confidence the results of which are incalculable. The “Groat” never misses an opportunity to highlight the deterioration of public services, especially in the NHS and particularly in maternity provision locally, as well as pointing out the chronic state of the roads, many of which will soon only be fit for tractors. It never crosses the papers mind that the proliferation of huge SUV’s and 4×4 vehicles might be adding to the problem. The fact that the Highland Council is one of the biggest local authority areas in Europe with an ever decreasing budget is also overlooked. As is the correspondent shrinkage of the Scottish Government’s settlement from Westminster. The paper glories in the high house prices in the West of Caithness but has little to say about the chronic housing shortage which is driving our young and brightest South or abroad. The “Groat” also champions the North Coast 500 phenomenon but is silent on the number of hotels that are either on the market or are closed because they no longer have the workforce from Europe they once enjoyed. The railway is falling apart and Wick airport is to close. Happy days.

This is ironic as most of those living in the West of Caithness, many of whom have some pecuniary attachment either directly or indirectly to Dounreay, are hostile to Scottish independence, voted No in the 2014 referendum and for Brexit in 2016. Well, you get what you vote for. Statistically, at election time, they vote – if they vote at all – for the Lib Dems and for “independent” councillors at local elections. One such councillor was so “independent” that he recently resigned from the “independent” group at the Council’s Glenurquhart Road HQ and joined the Tories. Everything that is bad, runs the editorial narrative of the Highland News and Media, who own most of the local papers in the North of Scotland, is the fault of the SNP. This unique perspective they have in common with every other newspaper and media outlet in Scotland other than The National.

Auguste Comte, (1798 – 1857) the French philosopher and father of Positivism, argued that all genuine knowledge is either true by definition or positive – meaning that facts are derived by reason and logic from sensory experience. Or a posteriori (from the later), as they say in the philosophy trade. Other ways of knowing, such as intuition, introspection, or religious faith, Comte rejected and considered meaningless. It is through observation, he argued, that humanity is able to gather knowledge. The only way within society to gather evidence and build upon what we do not already know to strengthen society is to observe and experience our situational surroundings. The critical flaw in Comte’s positivist outlook is that it makes looking into the future difficult. The living may be governed by the dead but what about the unborn? For Comte the Owl of Minerva indeed flies at midnight. Despite this Comte is generally credited as the father of sociology.

Rishi Sunak, on the other hand, is the slim daddy of slippery fantasy. Brexit is working. Rwanda is a safe country. Bombing foreign countries is the way to peace. Uncritical support for Israel is good for the Palestinians. Tax cuts for the rich benefits everyone. Scotland is better together in the perfect Union with England. The handling of the Covid pandemic was as good as it could be. Ukania is a world leader. Who, observing all of that, could not fail to gather a greater knowledge?

This spirit of enquiry, Comte-style, is dangerous to the English Tory project, the one Keir Starmer is so eagerly embracing. To those involved in this project Scotland, despite the perfect Union, is a foreign country where freedom of thought and protest is discouraged with the ultimate aim being to make thinking, or at least thinking about a political and constitutional alternative and protesting about it, impossible; while at the same time stripping Scotland clean of all material wealth. All this administered with the palpable sneer that is so educated onto the faces of the exploiters no matter how hard they try to hide it. To Scottish eyes it is both blatant and risible. They think only of their own might, as they perceive it, but which, in reality, is an illusion. We must realise – and never forget – the immense damage which is being done to Scotland by this Tory regime and will continue to be done by the regime to come.

As David Edgerton, the science and technology historian, writes (The Guardian 22.1.24):

“The Tory party is a party of rentiers for rentiers; its electorate is old and propertied. Once the party of British national capitalism, of big business, before it undid the very bases on which it depended, it no longer acts as the agent of productive change. Its aim is essentially to transfer resources from young to old, from workers to rentiers, from poor to rich; to support the landlord, the property developer and the extractive monopolies. Far from being incompetent, it has been extraordinarily successful in pursuing its agenda. It has no interest or competence in promoting a successful, transformative, decarbonised capitalism; indeed it shows a remarkably inadequate understanding of the dynamics of modern capitalism.”

What Edgerton proposes is that instead of the economics of fantasy growth, we need a political economy of improvement. Instead of wishful thinking about science and entrepreneurship, we need to change things. We cannot think of decarbonisation as a green industrial revolution, or as a tool for new R&D programmes and entrepreneurial startups or industrial policy. Instead we face a systemic issue that must be dealt with as such; at the centre of this needs to be a multi-dimensional analysis of the households nearly all of us live in. We will need, for example, to restrict certain things – including subsidies to air travel, airport expansion – not difficult to imagine in Wick – and new oil and coal production have to cease. For those working in the North Sea this is problematic, but alternative realities are available despite government vagueness on just what a ”just transition” actually means.

All this will require a creative and competent state, and popular consent and engagement. Neither of which we currently have. David Edgerton is not certain these necessary change can be achieved with private, barely regulated utilities extracting huge profits. All of this, he concludes, needs to be discussed. Which it won’t be in Atomic City where the vast sums involved in decommissioning Dounreay have no equivalent in developing the green energy of tidal stream, which the Pentland Firth offers in unlimited capacity. The Tories are more than happy to pour wealth into a hole in the ground and turn a blind eye to the physically obvious, low carbon – and local – energy solution.

Neither will the Tories reflect for a milli-second on the self-centred chaos they have visited upon the very people they are supposed to represent and serve, because they fundamentally do not care about the people they are supposed to represent and serve. They are only interested in what they, individually, can get out of it financially. That is why the majority of their MP’s entered politics. That is why the rich succeed in the Conservative and Unionist Party. Cash trumps class. That is why Rishi Sunak is Prime Minister. That is why Caithness is being de-populated. That is why Atomic City exists in a nuclear dream-world where money is the only thing that matters.

Of course money does not matter. It is our mutual and collective passion for life that matters, and how it is quietly sustained, despite all discouragement, somewhere deep inside each of us. It is what creates the energy of life and furnishes the excitement of living. This passion for life is what enables us to recognize and receive the knowledge of what we see before us as a blessing, not a curse. We have to believe – I have to believe – that Atomic City will awaken from its dream, that like nuclear waste the Tories will be buried in the hard ground of history and that Scotland will come into her own and become a country fit to live in.

Comments (8)

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  1. John says:

    I write as someone who is not instinctively antinuclear power.
    I have three major reservations about the nuclear power industry:
    1.Nuclear Waste primary the longevity of its radioactivity and impact on future generations. This has always been a concern and the level of concern will grow with any increase in nuclear power facilities.
    2.Impact on decarbonisation- the plans for new nuclear power plants are no longer going to address the immediacy of need to reduce CO2 emissions. To put it bluntly the horse will have bolted (global temperatures will have >1.5C if not higher) by the time new nuclear power plants come on line.
    3.Safety – this has always been a concern as Sellafield etc demonstrate but it was Fukushima that caused greatest concern. This disaster was caused by a tsunami and what concerns me is as we enter a period of more unpredictable and unprecedented climate effects how can we possibly claim that current safety measures are adequate to prevent possible future disasters.
    Risk is assessed as a combination of possibility and severity of outcome and as we have seen with Chernobyl and very nearly with Fukushima severity of outcome is potentially catastrophic for nuclear power plants.
    Having said all that I would not rule out the role of mini nuclear reactors in helping in decarbonising our energy sources.

    1. John Monro says:

      I am seriously ambivalent about nuclear power – for densely populated countries with industry, nuclear power may be the only way to literally keep the lights on – I’m thinking of England. but it’s not a choice without problems, a Hobson’s choice really. For Scotland, population 5 million and if you don’t grow the population then your wind and tidal resources, may be even some solar, along with pump storage and emerging battery technology, along with energy efficiency and insulating all properties fully, surely could power the country – particularly if you could work with Norway across the North Sea. Plan an excess of wind energy and export it. Forget “Net Zero 2050” – it’s a con. As long as governments think they can offset any number of emissions by buying credits from overseas (if every country did that how would that work?) or by planting trees they are deceiving themselves and us. The ETS is a con too, and an open opportunity for the greedy and corrupt to work the system. Abandon the ETS – work towards a true Zero emissions by 2050. Plant trees for their own sake, the sake of the environment, the natural world, for beauty,, for flood protection. That should be the goal.

  2. Helen says:

    Thank you, George Gunn. En point, as always.

  3. Jim Aitken says:

    An excellent and insightful piece of work by George Gunn.

  4. Mike Parr says:

    First rate article.
    Scotland could replace all the oil & gas it extracts (but does not benefit from) with renewables (wind & as the writer observes – tidal stream). Furthermore, at least in the case of wind (on or off-shore) the business case exists now … &……with the correct framework, all the kit could end up being owned by either locals or the scottish gov. Elec (or gas (H2)) could then be sold to the English.
    I’m English by the way – but support Scottish independence – which frankly – needs to be taken – the English will never, ever, give it.

  5. John Monro says:

    I enjoyed reading this piece, thank you, George. You covered pretty nearly every important issue there is, not just for Scotland. I believe there three things that support human society, our very human existence. You could liken them to the legs of a three-legged stool, or a tripod. A triangular arrangement of great stability and strength, also seen in the triangular frame of a racing bicycle, or the lattice structure of the Forth Railway Bridge or the Eiffel Tower. These are 1) The environment – everything physical and material in the universe and this planet, including all its life forms. 2) Our human population 3) Our knowledge – which is derived from 1) and 2) There are no other relationships ever worth talking about in comparison.

    Our present social, economic and political systems are failing to cope with 1) 2) and 3), also known as “reality”. They are leading us to disaster. The reality of diminishing resources, the reality of Global Warming and ocean acidification and the abuse of the environment, the reality of over-population, the reality of the abuse of knowledge, of magical and short-term thinking, of ignorant political discourse and human gullibility. Your discussion on the disaster of Dounreay as a metaphor for our present predicament is apposite, but you could have chosen pretty nearly any grandiose scheme proffered as an historic solution which ended up as an historic problem. It’s just that Dounreay is an obvious interloper in our natural and human world – you wouldn’t notice it so starkly in some derelict Glaswegian brownfield site – actually that mightn’t be true, it would be noticed and terribly feared. But put it another way – you don’t rid yourself of a problem by hiding it under the carpet – as we’ve tried to hide Dounreay.

    I have written here before, we need a new ecological enlightenment. Scotland’s proud history of its share in the Western enlightenment of the 17th an 18th Centuries should guide us as to what is required. Unlike the first Enlightenment though, this one is urgent. It should be the duty of any Scottish Assembly to form a nucleus for radical thought in Scotland that can guide “Positivity” and perhaps not just transform our present societies but transform society’s future prospects from dire to hopeful.

  6. Satan says:

    I guess that it is an idication of Scottish society when a writer in Thurso has to suck on the goverment’s teat. Next up: Government funded Jazz as long as you have bagpipes. Fuck off bigly, but it’s for real.

    1. Julian Smith says:


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