… and Christmas trees were tall, I was easily spooked by big things. Taken to the local fire station by my grandfather, I was reduced to tears by the sheer enormity of the engines. Given the opportunity to climb Portland Lighthouse, the endless stairs sent me scurrying outside. The railway viaduct near Goostrey in Cheshire towered so high, I would not go near. In the nearby fields an enormous and strange structure was taking shape and I took exception to it. In the 1950s, Bernard Lovell’s radio telescope at Jodrell Bank was only partially complete.
Many years later, living in the foothills of the Peak District at Bosley, on clear days, the entire Cheshire Plain was visible from our bedroom window. And there, at its centre, the Jodrell Bank telescope – no longer something to be feared, no longer a stranger in the landscape, it had come to define it.
Around the same time in the 1950s, many miles further north, a more threatening structure was emerging from the white heat of technology.
At the outbreak of the Second World War it became apparent that the air defences in the far north of Scotland must be improved, primarily as a consequence of the British Navy’s safe anchorage at Scapa Flow which was particularly vulnerable to air attack. As a first step an airfield was constructed at Wick and then later in the war, another at Dounreay. However, the Dounreay facility, not completed until April 1944, was immediately mothballed. Apart from occasional usage by the Navy as HMS Tern II and later as a camp for displaced Polish servicemen, it remained unused until 1954 when the Government announced that Dounreay was to become the centre for UK fast reactor research and development. Between 1955 and 1958, the Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) sphere mushroomed into the landscape and, like Jodrell Bank, it has come to define it. Lovell’s creation says ‘here we can reach for the stars’; Dounreay’s says ‘here we can tinker with the tools of Armageddon, tame Einstein’s monster’.
The Caithness Death Star achieved criticality in 1959 and, in 1962, became the first fast reactor in the world to supply electricity to a national grid. Just fifteen years later it was switched off. Since then it has been a long slow process of decommissioning, an exercise that will not complete until 2025 with the demolition of the sphere. Sadly, retention is not practical – according to the Dounreay Heritage Strategy document 2010,SES(09)P007, Issue 2 : The DFR sphere is contaminated throughout and recent core samples from the vault indicate that the concrete has deteriorated more than anticipated and that original construction techniques may have been lax in some areas … despite the most rigorous decontamination efforts, the risk of receiving a significant radiation dose may never go away.
I have some connection with the Dounreay site having been responsible for establishing an Office Systems field trial there between 1988 and 1989, housed in the buildings adjacent to DFR. This exercise had more to do with my love of travel and wild landscape than the practicalities of running a software trial in this faraway place. It was during one of many site visits that I was given access to the sphere, much smaller on the inside than it appears from without. Fortunately I had grown more tolerant of ‘big things’ in the intervening years. Now it is the things I can’t see that worry me, rather than the things I can.
This image from the archive shows Reay’s par 3 7th, Pilkington. Not quite visible, over the horizon to the left, is the DFR sphere:
An earlier post, Seaside Golf, explores the fall out from this atomic energy site (pun intended).