Post-war planning in the nuclear north, 1954-63 – Linda Ross

Post-war planning in the nuclear north, 1954-63


As an aside to nuclear development, the built environment of nuclear townships in Britain is overlooked in favour of its technical and scientific elements. Yet the consequences of the atomic programme extend beyond the technological: the social infrastructure behind the science was integral to the success of many nuclear ventures. This had its largest impact following the 1954 decision to site the country’s first fast breeder reactor establishment at Dounreay in Caithness, the most northerly county of the British mainland. The modernism associated with the nuclear age usually sits outside traditional twentieth century discourses of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, which emphasise the trends of depopulation and unemployment within rural areas. The arrival of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), however, brought nuclear science to a rural landscape with an agricultural skills base, situated within a region distant from major population centres. The chosen site was located close to the town of Thurso, the population of which grew by 147 percent as a result of the UKAEA ‘importing’ skilled scientists and engineers into the county to ensure the safe running of the establishment. To accommodate this influx the town underwent an extensive period of planning, with 1007 houses built to house the new citizens who were termed ‘the atomics’. Accommodating this population stands as an example of quick, complex change, triggered by a technical experiment with enduring social consequences.

drawing 2 - layout

In the early 1950s Britain’s civil nuclear energy programme was hailed as a beacon of modernity and renewal. Through Dounreay, the Highlands and Islands, so often treated as a place apart, became an agent of national prosperity. The choice of Caithness, however, necessitated a range of location-specific measures designed to aid social development. The most significant of these was the provision of housing for the incoming employees. This paper will reveal the essential role of this housing in supporting the UKAEA’s early nuclear energy programme. Bound up with this was rural innovation, with the UKAEA and the local authorities co-operating in their pursuit of community-building on an unprecedented scale. What resulted was a product of its time, erected quickly for a specific purpose, fitting in with the post-war building ethos whilst also seeking to deliver the rational community espoused by Modernism.

Writing contemporaneously to the Dounreay development, Sylvia Crowe recognised that ‘the evolving pattern of power in the landscape is unrelated to the old industrial map of Britain…forming a network which covers the whole country and spreads even to the most remote rural areas’.1In bringing scientific development to an agricultural area, Dounreay was at the forefront of this evolution, countering the notion of rural areas as backwaters resistant to change. The site is currently being decommissioned, a process which will see it reach its interim end state in the early 2030s and its final end point by 2333. With it expected to be cleared of its infrastructure, the physical remains of the fast breeder reactor programme will not be scientific: what will endure are the physical markers of community. In assessing these, this paper will show how an area considered rural was able to adapt, absorb and indeed pioneer the socio-cultural effects of nuclear development.

1Crowe, S. The Landscape of Power. (London: The Architectural Press, 1958) pp. 9-10.

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