Page last updated at 09:41 GMT, Friday, 11 April 2008 10:41 UK
Grand scale of a nuclear clean-up

By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Scotland's fast reactor research site, Dounreay in Caithness, is gradually being cleaned of radioactive contamination and demolished.

The decommissioning project will take decades to complete at an estimated cost of 2.9bn.

The BBC Scotland news website has been given an inside look at the challenges involved in the process.

Artist's impression of Dounreay in 2032 (Pic: NDA/UKAEA)
An artist's impression of Dounreay in 2032

Demolishing a nuclear power plant involves forward planning on a grand scale.

Those involved in decommissioning Dounreay, a former research complex, have projections of what the site would look like by the year 2300.

Calculations have been made on the future impact of erosion on the nearby rocky Caithness coastline.

Meanwhile, radioactive waste has been sealed in containers designed to withstand the grinding motion of glaciers of a possible ice age 10,000 years from now.

More than 50 years since construction began on what would be Britain's centre of fast reactor research, old buildings at Dounreay are being pulled down while new ones are being built to deal with its hazardous materials.

In an office with views towards the site's famous sphere, or golf ball, and the rolling surf of the Pentland Firth, programme strategy manager Doug Graham gave a time-travelling presentation on the various stages of decommissioning.

By 2025, the complex will have reached what is known as an interim end point when most of the clean-up and demolition should be completed.

Work is running ahead of schedule, as it had not originally been expected to reach that point until 2032.

Some time between the years 2050 and 2078 the waste and spent nuclear fuel will be transported off site to an as-yet unbuilt UK repository, or dump.

The Scottish Government has said the material should be stored at the sites where it was produced.

Dounreay's owners, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and contractors are continuing to work towards a long-term plan of the waste eventually going to a national repository.

However, it could be stored on the site for the next 100 years, giving time for negotiation with the government on a final solution.

A former wartime airfield near Thurso was selected as a site for experimental fast reactors in 1954
The first nuclear reaction in Scotland occurred in 1957
In 2004, the last nuclear fuel element was manufactured at Dounreay

Meanwhile, the eventual end point for the whole site will not be reached until almost 300 years into the future.

An artist's illustration of Dounreay in Mr Graham's presentation shows nothing but the iconic sphere left on the site.

It is difficult to get to grips with the idea of what life will be like in 2300.

However, discussions have already started with Historic Scotland on how best to preserve the iconic golf ball as a monument to Britain's industrial heritage.

Non-hazardous items, such as a clock inside the Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR), could be kept as museum pieces.

Whatever the future holds, time is ticking slowly towards the end state for Dounreay.

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