Dounreay, located 8 miles (13 km) west of Thurso on the north coast of Scotland, opened in 1954 to develop the UK fast nuclear reactor programme. Fast breeder reactors, rather incredibly, produce more fuel as they run and research at Dounreay successfully demonstrated the process on a commercial scale. However, work stopped because the government could see no economic justification for this technically-complex technology in the medium term. Britain's first fast reactor, the Dounreay Fast Reactor, operated from 1959 to 1977. This was followed by the 250 megawatt Prototype Fast Reactor which operated from the early 1970s until 1994. A third plant, the Dounreay Materials Test Reactor is also now closed. Reprocessing activities will end in 2006. Since the reactors have been shut down emphasis for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) has shifted toward safe and environmentally responsible management of the decommissioning process, which will take around 100 years. The distinctive dome is now a listed structure and will remain.

Employing over 2000 workers at its peak, Dounreay revolutionised the local economy, Thurso quadrupled in size and workers were brought from as far away as Tongue. The plant injected £30 million per annum into the local economy and Dounreay represents 20% of Caithness GDP. Even in its scaled down role, there are 1200 people employed at the plant.

Controversy has dogged the 55 ha (135 acre) site over the years; a disposal shaft filled with radioactive waste suffered an explosion in 1977 and now needs to be cleared, campaigners complained about the storage of highly radioactive fuel and a large quantity of weapons-grade uranium is said to have 'disappeared' over the years.

Adjacent to Dounreay is HMS Vulcan where the reactors for the UK's nuclear submarines have been developed. Operated by Rolls Royce Ltd. on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, a Pressurised Water Reactor of the type used in Trident nuclear submarines remains in operation.

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