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Last Updated: Friday, 18 May 2007, 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
Sentinels which will stand no more
By Willie Johnston
BBC Scotland

Willie Johnston
Willie Johnston grew up close to the Chapelcross plant
For half a century they've stood sentinel at the gateway to Scotland, visible from three counties - Dumfriesshire, Cumbria and Northumbria.

For travellers back north, they are the signal that you have reached the top of the M6 and are nearly home.

For me, that was literally the case.

I grew up a stone's throw from Chapelcross.

Its four giant cooling towers were the dominant feature of the view from my bedroom windows throughout childhood.

On a still day the hum of the nuclear reactors was clearly audible.

We are also the same age. Construction started in 1955 and I was three months old when Chapelcross came on stream in February 1959. For me it has aye been!

And long before that, in its pre-power station days, Chapelcross was instrumental to my very existence.

For people like me Chapelcross, or "The Atomic" as we knew it, was simply a fact of life; undeniably there and unquestioned

It used to be a wartime training airfield.

My mother was stationed there as a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, or WAAF.

Dad lived on the farm along the road and would visit the camp daily to collect food scraps from the canteen to feed the pigs.

Ok, not the most romantic of circumstances for love to blossom but apparently it did and the rest is history.

For people like me Chapelcross, or "The Atomic" as we knew it, was simply a fact of life; undeniably there and unquestioned.

It provided quality, well-paid jobs for hundreds: people we knew or were related to; the dads of many of my school pals.

The Annan plant avoided the controversy surrounding Sellafield

It powered our homes and it powered our economy.

And in those more innocent, maybe subservient, days the plant's safety and the staff's belief in it was, as far as I can remember, never an issue.

Not many local people gave a second thought to the fact that the power generation process produced plutonium for Britain's early atomic bombs.

When weapons technology moved on, there was a campaign in the late seventies against the construction of a plant to produce tritium for Trident nuclear warheads, but ultimately that went ahead and functioned for more than two decades without incident.

The wisdom of the community's generally implicit trust in the nuclear industry, especially in the early days, might be debated now.

At nearly 300 feet high and weighing around 6,000 tonnes each, the towers should be eyesores yet I don't know anyone who views them as such

There was a serious partial meltdown in 1967 which knocked out one of the reactors for two years.

It also had the potential to pose a serious risk to the community, although, whether by luck or good management, that was averted.

There were other minor accidents along the way but the safety record of Chapelcross was generally good.

The plant managed largely to steer clear of controversy, protests and headlines in a way that Windscale over the Solway Firth in Cumbria never achieved.

They went as far as re-naming Windscale, Sellafield in an attempt to clean up its image after a serious radioactive leak.

It won't go down as one of the more successful re-brandings in industrial history.

The hum of the power station was audible in nearby homes

Ultimately, Chapelcross churned out power and nuclear weapons material for 45 years.

The reactors shut down in 2004 and the decommissioning started.

Demolishing the cooling towers is only a small step on the very long process of clearing the site that will last decades.

But there is no doubt it's hugely symbolic.

At nearly 300 ft high and weighing about 6,000 tonnes each, the towers should be eyesores yet I don't know anyone who views them as such.

They have become an integral part of the landscape of Dumfriesshire and of the lives of people who live there. In 10 seconds on Sunday morning that will change forever.

It's also a sobering reminder of the passage of time.

The towers are coming down because they are old and have outlived their purpose.

As their contemporary, how do you think that makes me feel?

Demolition day looms for towers
18 May 07 |  South of Scotland

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