The History of the Dounreay Nuclear Research Establishment


Since the early days of construction in 1955 right through to the present day, Dounreay has had a dominant impact on the economic and social development of Caithness.  The role that Dounreay has played in the history of Scotland has been recognised as being of national importance.  The United Kingdom’s fast reactor research and development programme at Dounreay is now over and the site is currently Scotland’s largest nuclear clean-up and demolition project.  In order to try and preserve and interpret the history of Dounreay for future generations, a Heritage Advisory Panel has been set up between Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd (DSRL), Caithness Horizons, Historic Environment Scotland and the National Museum of Scotland. 

In 2014 the Museum opened an extension to our Dounreay exhibition which enabled Caithness Horizons to display more of its nationally important Dounreay Collection. The objects on display mainly represent the social and economic history of Dounreay.  We aim to rotate the objects on display as the Collection develops and key themes start to emerge.  As the Collection is diverse the interpretation in this exhibition has been designed so that it celebrates the achievements of Dounreay and provides the visitor with key facts about the site.  It is not intended to be a comprehensive history.

Dounreay Timeline

1954       Dounreay becomes the centre of the United Kingdom’s fast reactor research and development programme

1955       The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) begins construction of the Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR), the Dounreay Materials Testing Reactor (DMTR), and associated chemical works

1957       First nuclear reaction in Scotland takes place in a criticality test cell at Dounreay

1957       Announcement that the Royal Navy Vulcan submarine test propulsion facility is to be built           beside Dounreay

1958       DMTR achieves criticality (goes live) – Scotland’s first nuclear reactor

1959       DFR achieves criticality

1962       DFR becomes the first fast reactor in the world to supply electricity to the grid

1966       The UK Government chooses Dounreay as site for a Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR)

1969       DMTR shut down

1974       PFR achieves criticality

1977       DFR shut down

1977       A chemical explosion damages the waste shaft

1983       The first radioactive particles are detected in the environment

1986       There is a planning inquiry into an application by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) and UKAEA to

build a European Demonstration Reprocessing Plant at Dounreay

1988       The UK Government announces a phased end to fast reactor research and development

1994       PFR shut down

1996       Reprocessing of nuclear fuel ceases at Dounreay

1998       An audit of safety by regulators identifies weaknesses

2000       Dounreay Site Restoration Plan sets out a 60-year plan to decommission the site at a cost of £4.3 billion

2004       Fuel fabrication ceases at Dounreay

2005       The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is established

2005       The Civil Nuclear Constabulary replaces the UKAEA Constabulary

2007       Decommissioning is brought forward to 2032 at a total estimated cost of £2.9 billion         (discounted)

2007       Demolition of the first Category 1 facility in Scotland – former fuel fabrication plant D1202

2008       Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd (DSRL) become the site licence company

2008       The site closure programme is accelerated to 2025 at an estimated cost of £2.6 billion

2011       Babcock Dounreay Partnership is selected by NDA to complete site closure


Dounreay – Did You Know?

1.       The planning application for Dounreay was submitted to the Caithness County Council on 16th November 1954 with an estimated cost of £6 million. 

2.       The first site open day was held in May 1957. Such was the importance of Dounreay that journalists came from all over the world to visit the site. 7,500 members of the general public walked through the gates.

3.       In fast reactors, no moderator is used to slow down the neutrons, which split from the atom at a speed up to 27,000 miles per second, hence the term “fast”.

4.       Dounreay’s Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR) successfully addressed the novel challenges of handling and pumping 1,000 tonnes of liquid sodium coolant at temperatures of up to 600°C.

5.       Dounreay’s sodium disposal plant set a world record in 2008 by destroying a total of 1,533 tonnes of sodium.

6.       Two chemical analytical methods developed at Dounreay, have been incorporated as the international standard for measuring Uranium and Plutonium in solution. They are the Davies/Gray method for Uranium (ISO 7097) and the MacDonald/Savage method for Plutonium (ISO 8298).

7.       The Dounreay site was a unique nuclear park as all the facilities for completing not one, but two nuclear fuel cycles, were based on a single site.

8.       Around 11,500 people have been direct employees at Dounreay over the years and at least the same again have worked as contractors.

9.       Dounreay has been responsible for training over 1,000 craft apprentices. There have also been over 1,000 scientific, secretarial and clerical trainees.

10.   Every year, hundreds of scientists and engineers from all over the world visited Dounreay to attend training courses or meetings, to learn about the site’s world leading technological advancements.

11.   The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) attracted around 1,200 workers and their families to Caithness. The incoming workers became known as the “Atomics”. This originated from the order book at Thurso East Farm being marked up with this term for its Pennyland Estate customers.

12.   The population of Thurso rose from 3,203 to 8,037 between 1951 and 1961.

13.   Between 1954 and 1964 over 1,800 new houses were built in Thurso.

14.   The number of school children in Caithness climbed from 3,926 to 6,010 between 1954 and 1977.  

15.   The Thurso Folk Club at the now demolished Dounreay Sports and Social Club in Viewfirth House, Thurso had a national reputation. Its annual summer folk festival was one of the largest in Scotland.

16.   The UKAEA was instrumental in funding the revival of Reay golf course from a rundown 12 hole course to a first class 18 hole course.

17.   The British Safety Council presented its annual safety award to Dounreay for 30 consecutive years between 1963 and 1993.

18.   Between 1957 and 2004, the Materials Testing Reactor fuel fabrication plant manufactured over 10,000 fuel elements for material test reactors all over the world.

19.   The volume of low level radioactive waste that will be managed during site decommissioning is equivalent to between 400 and 700 double decker buses.

20.   Dounreay supplied nuclear medicine with enough specialist fuel to create almost 10 million cancer diagnoses for patients across Europe.