31 MAY 1957, Page 18

Caithness Preserved

By J. STUBBS WALKER HUMAN affairs transcend the wonders of modern nuclear development which the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority has been showing off to curious experts of industry and press at the experimental station at Dounreay, near Thurso in Caithness. This new reactor `farm' is to become the focal point of our most advanced full-scale industrial atomic research; on the suc- cess of its engineers and scientists depends much of the future of Britain as a world leader in commercial nucleonics.

But it is the ,atomic impact on the people of the Highlands that is of outstanding interest, particularly in these days of argument about the siting of industrial—and particularly atomically industrial—buildings throughout the British Isles. It is almost inevitable that any proposal to build plant that is even indirectly concerned with atoms will result in tedious argument between the atom- sponsors and the atom-haters. What are so glibly called `local amenities' can be relied upon to rear their often far from amenable heads while, for reasons seldom clearly explained at the resulting public inquiries, atomic energy, however peaceful it may be, always appears to threaten the value of neighbouring property.

There was none of this at Caithness. At Doun- reay itself, of course, there was little scope for complaitit for it consists of little more than a croft or. two. But Thurso, the nearby town, is quite a sizeable unit which, before The advent of the atomic station, had a population of some 3,000 people. Its 'city fathers,' headed by the tall, huge-handed provost, John Sinclair, a local businessman, owner of fishing vessels, part-owner of a quick-freeze factory and, incidentally, chief of the local Salvation Army, have welcomed the atomic project not only with open arms but with sound and practical co-operation. Indirectly they are investing money in the atom and they can already see their rewards.

There have, of course, been minor niggles related mostly to the acquisition of property. The settlement of these problems, however, has generally been achieved on terms of sufficient friendliness for the sealing of the bond to be celebrated with a glass or two of the excellent whisky that is always available in this distant corner of Scotland. (The Provost is one of the most charming teetotallers it has ever been my pleasure to drink with.) In a remote area which was already being de- populated and on which had fallen the deathly fvnger of a dignified but none the less fatal decline, the local people realised from the start that the huge atom station would be good business. They are hopeful, too, that it will call back to their part of Scotland some of the youngsters who have migrated south in search of fortune. To this end the rugged folk of Caithness are doing everything they can to enable their local boys to make good as atomic technicians and scientists.

Their first step has been to build a new secon- dary school. They plan to provide a modern technical institute for more advanced education because at present the nearest centre where science and technology can be learned is at Aberdeen. (The distance between Thurso and Aberdeen may only be 120 miles or so but it is not a journey to be taken lightly.) The sons and daughters of the Caithness people are now impatiently waiting for vacancies at the filled-to-capacity apprentices' school that has been opened at Dounreay by the Atomic Energy Authority.

The whole atmosphere at Thurso is healthily pro-atomic. Equally, the whole atmosphere at the Atomic Energy Authority is healthily pro- Scottish. The atomic people are.anxious to nurture this sense of co-operation and it says a great deal for local relations between the two groups that the Dounreay works manager, Major-General S. W. Joslin (ex-head of REME), has just been elected to the local council.

Two years ago when work first started on the new plant a promise was made that Scotsmen would be welcomed to work inside the security fence at Dounreay. That was no hollow promise, for today 80 per cent. of the 3,200 engineers, scientists and workmen are Scots. Of the UKAEA's own staff already at Dounreay, ap- proximately half of the 900 are Scots. At present, of course, the great majority of the people work- ing at the atom stations are employed by the contractors.

That local response to the plan for Dounreay was so good is even more interesting when it is realised that the people were warned that the particular reactor that wasfirst to be built was not an ideal thing to have on your doorstep. It is by no means as harmless as the Calder Hall-type reactors now being built throughout the country for the English and Scottish electricity authorities.

The Dounreay reactor works on something-for- nothing lines. It produces (in theory, at least, for it has not yet gone into operation) more fissile fuel than it consumes while generating power. Technically it is known as a fast breeder reactor. In simple language it burns up highly enriched uranium (or plutonium) in a 'heart' the size of a domestic dustbin, produces a great deal of heat energy and at the same time uses spare neutrons, produced in the reaction, to turn natural (non- enriched) uranium into the much more active and valuable fuel, plutonium; or it can turn thorium, a comparatively common substance which is itself atomically useless, into fissile and therefore valuable uranium.

The great problem, however, is to get rid of the tremendous quantity of heat that is generated in the small heart of the reactor. This is done by a constant flow of liquid metal, an alloy of sodium. and potassium. A failure of the sodium-potassium flow could result in the quite violent disintegration' of the atomic core. There are many safeguards' against this but no machinery, even in these days of mechanical near-perfection, can be inherently safe. Disaster at Dounreay would mean nothing comparable to the explosion of an atomic bomb but it could mean a spread of radioactivity which might call for some local evacuation. Though the whole reactor is contained in a 150-ft. steel sphere to limit the spread of radioactivity in the event of trouble, this sphere would not give complete protection if there was a major disaster.

This danger, remote though it may be, was fully explained to the people of Caithness some two' years ago. `There is no such thing in life as absolute safety,' Sir Christopher Hinton, chief of the industrial side of the UKAEA, told the locals. `Only the fact that we consider that there is a remote risk causes us to build this factory in a remote place.'

The people of Thurso think the remote risk well worth their while. They have clithbed on to the atomic bandwaggon and are now only anxious that their children should have an opportunity of becoming waggon-drivers.