1954-1994 – The Dounreay Experiment

Britain needed more electricity to rebuild its economy after World War Two. The discovery of nuclear energy offered hope. But the uranium metal needed to make nuclear energy was very scarce – and Britain’s priority, like other post-war powers, was the development of nuclear weapons.

Scientists persuaded the UK Government they could generate electricity from a new type of reactor that would not jeopardise the weapons programme. The fast breeder reactor would convert an unusable form of uranium to plutonium that could by recycled and turned into new reactor fuel. It would breed its own fuel, offering the prospect of electricity in abundance.

After early research in England, agricultural land in Caithness next to a disused wartime airfield and a ruined castle, was chosen to test the reactor and all the chemical plant that would be needed to take the idea from experiment to production. By the 1960s, the scientists had demonstrated it would work. The target now was to have fast reactors in commercial production by the late 1970s. It was, said Minister for Technology Frank Cousins in 1966, “the system of the next century”, adding: “They will be able to produce new nuclear fuel in the course of their operation and offer a prospect of even greater economy, as well as conservation in the use of uranium.”

But the fast reactor proved to be more expensive than thought and by the 1980s uranium was no longer in scarce supply. In 1988, Britain decided it would not need fast reactors for the foreseeable future and cancelled the programme, signalling the end for Dounreay.

The 1990s saw Dounreay evolve as a decommissioning site. Spare capacity in the site's fuel plants was offered to foreign customers but this business was wound up in the late 1990s when a decision was taken to close the site and concentrate wholly on decommissioning and clean-up.

  • 1954 – Government announces Dounreay to become centre of UK fast reactor research and development.
  • 1955 – UK Atomic Energy Authority begins construction of Dounreay Fast Reactor, Dounreay Materials Reactor and associated chemical works
  • 1957 – First nuclear reaction in Scotland takes place in criticality test cell at Dounreay.
  • 1957 – Royal Navy announces Vulcan submarine test propulsion facility to be built beside Dounreay
  • 1958 – Dounreay Materials Test Reactor achieves criticality – Scotland’s first nuclear reactor.
  • 1959 – Dounreay Fast Reactor achieves criticality
  • 1962 – Dounreay becomes first fast reactor in world to supply electricity to the grid.
  • 1966 – Government chooses Dounreay as site for larger Prototype Fast Reactor
  • 1969 – Materials test reactor shut down
  • 1974 – Prototype Fast Reactor achieves criticality
  • 1977 – Dounreay Fast Reactor switched off.
  • 1977 – Chemical explosion damages waste shaft.
  • 1983 – First radioactive particles detected in environment.
  • 1986 – Planning inquiry into application by BNFL and UKAEA to build European Demonstration Reprocessing Plant at Dounreay.
  • 1988 – Government announces phased end of fast reactor research and development.
  • 1994 – Prototype Fast Reactor shut down.
  • 1996 – Reprocessing of nuclear fuel ceases.
  • 1998 – Audit of safety by regulators identifies weaknesses.
  •  2000 – Dounreay Site Restoration Plan sets out 60-year plan to decommission site at cost of £4.3 billion.
  • 2004 – Fuel fabrication ceases.
  • 2005 – Nuclear Decommissioning Authority established.
  • 2005 – Civil Nuclear Constabulary replaces UKAEA Constabulary.
  • 2007 – NDA takes ownership of Dounreay.
  • 2007 – Decommissioning brought forward to 2032 at a total estimated cost of £2.9 billion (discounted).
  • 2008 – Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd becomes site licence company.
  • 2008 - Site closure programme accelerated to 2025 at estimated cost of£2.6 billion.

The timelines for:

UKAEA organisational changes

the worldwide development of nuclear power

the International Atomic Energy Agency

the development of nuclear power in the UK

summarise efforts to harness the power of the atom. The history and achievements of the following Dounreay facilities:



Dounreay Materials Testing Reactor (DMTR)

Shaft & Silo

Fuel Cycle Area (FCA)

Experimental Criticality Laboratory

Infrastructure facilities

cover the contribution that Caithness gave to the UK Government in its optimistic vision of producing "electricity too cheap to meter."

An excellent series of articles written by local historians and Dounreay workers Alistair Fraser and Stephen Cashmore cover the history of Dounreay's early days.

This website's on-line archives page also has a variety of interesting history information.

"Life at Dounreay" booklet

Dounreay Householder's Handbook




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Image: PFR


Dounreay Castle


Dounreay Castle is situated on the foreshore at Dounreay and at the mouth of the burn known as the Mill Lade.

Image: Installing the reactor vessel in the Dounreay Materials Test Reactor during the 1950s

Installing the reactor vessel in the Dounreay Materials Test Reactor during the 1950s

Image: The air traffic controller in 2006 when it was used as an exhibition about the site.

The air traffic control tower in 2006 when it was used as an exhibition about the site.


Half the sphere is built