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Dounreay's beginnings debated by candlelight

 

The early part of 1955 in Caithness saw severe blizzard conditions which necessitated the famous Operation Snowdrop. It was against this backdrop of continuing chaos caused by the weather that an influential group of men from the Atomic Energy Authority descended on Dounreay to carry out the first official inspection of work in progress on the fast reactor site.

Construction of the sphere in progress

 

The year 1955 got off to a poor start in the county of Caithness. First an almighty blizzard - the worst in living memory - swept down and virtually immobilised the whole area from January until the end of the month, laying some inland spots under 30 feet of snow and triggering the 16-day aerial relief operation known as Operation Snowdrop. Then, just as things seemed to be getting halfway back to normal, on the afternoon of February 16, the snow was on again. The whole county sighed and shrugged its collective shoulders; what could a body do about the weather, indeed?

At 5.30pm on the 16th, the drivers of a Vauxhall Velox car and an ancient bus were at Wick Airport awaiting the arrival of a charter plane from Manchester. "Terrible weather, Douglas," the car driver observed to his companion.

"It certainly is that, Mr Carmichael. I'm glad it's me that has the bus to go back to Thurso with," Douglas Murray replied.

The plane arrived on the crest of a squall. It was late and its radio had ceased transmitting, the aerial having snapped off under the effects of severe icing. Eighteen men had flown up from Manchester on this plane; they had come on a serious mission which was destined to change the lives of every resident in the county of Caithness. Understandably, they were not positively impressed with the hospitality of the Highland weather.

As Donald Carmichael welcomed his visitors he probably guessed the true feelings masked by their polite responses. Caithness was often referred to as "Siberia" by these men from the south, a name perhaps bestowed in memory of the nightmare rail journeys some of them had made to Scrabster en route to Scapa Flow during the recent World War.

Conscious of the negative effect the term "Siberia" would have on efforts to recruit specialist labour for the Atomic Energy Authority's ground-breaking Dounreay Fast Reactor project, Carmichael had, in September 1954, written to Richard Hamilton, an old colleague, who happened to be the meteorological officer at Prestwick Airport, requesting him.to draw up a set of statistics showing that the difference between the Caithness climate and the rest of the country was not as great as folk imagined. Well, statistics were one thing, the Caithness climate was quite another.

The journey to Thurso was something less than a pleasure jaunt. The bus, a pre-war relic recently shipped up to Caithness from Springfields in Lancashire, threatened to give up the ghost on a number of occasions, while the Velox car was several times almost in the ditch. But at long last, the convoy arrived at their overnight destination, the Royal Hotel, Thurso.

Next morning the town of Thurso was snow-covered and beset by strong winds. At half-past eight, the old bus with 10 passengers aboard left the Royal Hotel. A long hour later it arrived at the disused Admiralty airfield at Dounreay. Given the depth of snow which had been drifting in the strong wind, the bus party probably regarded their safe arrival at this desolate spot as something of an achievement. Nevertheless, their visit had a serious purpose; they were carrying out the first official inspection of work in progress on the fast reactor site. It didn't amount to very much.

Messrs Halls, the main contractor, had 162 people working at Dounreay at the time of this first inspection. These had all been brought from Aberdeen. In the next few weeks Halls were due to take on another 200 employees for work at Dounreay, 80 of whom they hoped to recruit locally.

Donald Carmichael, the AEA's Local Liaison Officer, had a staff of eight, two of whom were transport drivers. In addition, he had nominal charge of a dozen tradesmen who had been seconded from the Admiralty, with whom they had been employed on care and maintenance at the Dounreay airfield. However, as Donald Carmichael later informed the chairman of the visiting party, the Admiralty seemed to have a less than clear understanding of the secondment agreement, and had recently given the men notice that they were soon to be transferred to work at Bower.

The site inspection went ahead as planned, the party visiting firstly the former Admiralty camp on the south side of the road. This camp was in the process of being refurbished for the reception of the hundreds of construction workers who would be needed to build the fast reactor. Parts of it were already being used as accommodation by 50 of the fledgeling army of contractors.

The main dining room, contractors' staff and tradesmen's quarters were described as being of "economical standard", whatever that term meant in 1955. Another month and the labour camp would be fit for another 270 occupants.

The inspection party then moved on to where a group of buildings had been erected for the storage of coded items. The chairman declared himself satisfied with the buildings, but less than happy with the absence of suitable racking in which to store the coded items. This omission he wanted rectified within a month.

Next on the itinerary was a visit to the airfield control tower, where work was well advanced for establishing offices for the contractors. A suggestion was made for converting some adjacent Nissen huts into offices for the resident engineer, and for the construction of group offices at the planned sited of the fast reactor and chemical plant. The chairman accepted these proposals without debate.

The time had now come for the most important parts of this first site visit - inspections of the location of the fast reactor foundations, and the proposed position of the seawater pumphouse. At the reactor site, the party were informed that trial excavations of the foundations had proved the ground was easier to work than had initially been anticipated, the first six feet or so being removable by digging. True, the next eight feet might require the assistance of small explosive charges, but these would be far less powerful than had originally been envisaged.

They then started off towards the shore on the last lap of their inspection tour. The wind was blowing hard from the north-east - and an east wind is cold no matter what direction it is coming from - and, although a very heavy sea was running, it was not yet full tide. This was unwelcome news, especially as the party were anxious to confirm that the proposed site of the seawater pumphouse was indeed correct with respect to tide conditions. Frozen to the bone, they returned to the control tower where, after a brief meeting during which the chairman expressed his great disappointment that he had been unable to see any evidence that the site had been pegged out in grid form, it was decided to adjourn for lunch. It was now 12.30pm, the weather had improved slightly, the road was definitely clear, and, lunch at the Royal Hotel being clearly preferable to cups of tea in a draughty, unheated control tower, the appropriate executive decision was duly made. ..

IN the afternoon, the party returned to Dounreay where, at high tide, they were able to see clearly that the proposed site of the seawater pumphouse for the fast reactor was not close enough to the cliff, and should be moved. But - enough was enough of perishingly cold winds, icy rough ground and sombre grey skies that might well herald the onset of another bout of snowbound isolation. Tomorrow would scarcely be too soon for a return flight to Manchester. The formal site progress meeting must take place without delay.

The meeting convened that evening at 5pm in a private room at the Royal Hotel, arranged by Donald Carmichael, who was then a semi-permanent resident there. What this meeting discussed was simply this - the design and completion dates of, electricity and water services to, drainage from, labour requirements of, road access to, and cost estimates of every building on the Dounreay site. No small matter when this involved two nuclear reactors (a further four were envisaged), together with their, associated fuel fabrication and reprocessing plants, plus all the ancillary buildings essential for the smooth, safe functioning of the whole establishment.

Nothing was left out, not even the provision of bed-lights for the residents of Ormlie Lodge, the Thurso hotel which was being converted into a hostel for AEA staff. Indeed, this hostel was given a high priority, the availability of a cosy, private room being a prime requirement for the qualified AEA staff who would soon need to be transferred to Dounreay. The chairman was told that the hostel could hold 45 people; in a year's time it may house a hundred. The chairman asked for an estimate of the hostel accommodation needed for the next 10 years. He didn't expect an answer there and then -- any time within the next few days would do.

What about the houses due to be built in Thurso, for which the contracts had just been let? Would they be completed to time? The works engineer admitted that the programme was already six weeks behind on a very tight programme, but every effort would be made to recover the lost time. The chairman was unhappy that the cost estimates included an extra 20 per cent added to take into account the geographical remoteness of the Dounreay site. Why was this? The only remoteness expenses that applied as far as he could see were those relating to materials transport and the cost of labour travelling to and from the site. He asked that the estimates be re-presented as soon as possible.

Shortly after the meeting started, the electricity supply to the hotel failed, plunging the place into darkness. No matter - proceedings continued by candlelight until 7.30pm. They resumed next day, concluding in the late afternoon. Reading through the minutes of this historic meeting, one thing becomes clear: when a question was asked an answer was expected. There was no hiding behind a waffle fence. If something required urgent attention an individual was detailed to action it. For instance, it was apparent that a project engineer with specific responsibility for managing the fast reactor sphere was required. The chairman instructed that one be appointed within the next seven days. There is nothing in the minutes to suggest that anyone present objected to this autocratic style of management.

Who, then, were these men who had come 500 miles to discuss, by candlelight in a snowed-up northern hotel, the progress of this challenging project? They were all employees of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority; with the exception of Donald Carmichael, they were all based at the AEA's Industrial Group headquarters in Risley, Cheshire, the design centre of most of the Authority's various projects; and their superior officer was Sir Christopher Hinton.

Many of those present at the meeting had joined the Authority from private industry, notably the chemical giant ICI. They were hand-picked men, whose initial experience with atomic energy had come through ICI's involvement in the Tube Alloys project, which had concentrated on the development of the atomic bomb. The chairman, Leonard (later Sir Leonard) Owen, was an ex-ICI man. Second in command to Christopher Hinton, Owen shared, to a considerable extent, the great man's autocratic personality. His ego was large; but his abilities matched it. A dictatorial style of management functions very well as long as those at the top have the respect of those below; attempt to command through status alone, and people will do as much as they are paid to do but not one iota more. Hinton and Owen were the sort who would run through a brick wall; but they would always have plenty of willing companions.

The kind of people who made up Hinton's team were, by and large, all respected by those downstream of them in the chain of command. Furthermore, the kind of direct-line management practised by those whose job it was to get the Dounreay project off the ground had been evolved and honed over a period of 15 years, five of which had been under the pressure of a World War. This style of management has been likened to a long, narrow corridor. At one end is the goal towards which everyone's eyes are directed. At the other is the project leader who can see the whole corridor. The leader's second in command sees less than his superior, the third man sees less still, and so on. The advantage of this corridor approach was that everybody had their own specific path towards the common goal, and they were able to concentrate their individual energies without too much distraction by anyone else. For example, Christopher Hinton briefed Donald Carmichael on what the AEA's housing needs were in Thurso. He also required General Joslin to draw up an insurance inspection programme for the fast reactor sphere components. But both men were empowered to act independently, their respective task paths never crossed, except when they reported back to the overall planning committee.

Others present at the site progress meeting of February 17, 1955, included D.W. Cole, W. Davies, E.L. Ashley, P.T. Fletcher and Major General Joslin, an ex-Army man and career civil servant, who was destined to become Dounreay's first general manager. Joslin was an experienced administrator; the others were planners,designers and engineers of various disciplines. One common thread held them together - they all possessed an overriding sense of the importance of the project they were involved in; The inconveniences of flying 500 miles in an old Dakota aircraft in order to trudge miles around a bleak and frozen airfield beside a grim, grey sea, to sit into the night debating million-pound decisions by candlelight; these were but petty annoyances to men who believed in the ultimate success of the Dounreay Fast Reactor experiment.

Wick Airport being reported fully operational on the 18th, the Risley men fully expected to be back in Manchester later that night. There was, however, a slight problem. How were they to get from Thurso to Wick? All roads were choked with snow, so too was the railway line. Someone suggested contacting the local authorities to see if some sort of official transport could be arranged, but neither a helicopter nor a fishery vessel was available. They would just have to stay another night at the Royal. Some of the marooned men accepted their confinement philosophically - there were worse places on God's earth than the Royal Hotel. Others, sick to the back teeth with foul weather and enforced idleness, were depressed and agitated. No matter, it was no use arguing with the Caithness climate.

Early next morning, the AEA men struggled down to Scrabster to inspect the seine-netter Quiet Waters. Would they be prepared to sail through the Pentland Firth to Wick in this vessel? Leonard Owen said he would; his companions made it clear that he would do so alone. Another blank. Still it was not all gloom and despondency. One of the party, Jim Kendall, had a birthday to celebrate and the Scrabster Hotel was close at hand. . .

Late that afternoon, British Railways announced that the line between Thurso and Wick had been cleared of snow. That evening a special train conveyed Leonard Owen and his companions through to Wick, where they spent the night, prior to flying back to Manchester on the morning of February 20, after the most eventful four days any of them could remember. With them on the charter plane went a Caithness girl emigrating to New Zealand, to whom they had given passage. When the plane touched down at Manchester, it was met by a group of newspapermen. Did the gentlemen of the press expect an update on the Dounreay project? No, they were not interested in anything to do with nuclear reactors - they wanted to interview the Caithness girl bound for New Zealand.

Just before he boarded the Wick-bound train at Thurso station, Leonard Owen thanked Donald Carmichael for making such excellent arrangements for his party's visit to Caithness. Carmichael's reply is not recorded, but shortly afterwards he wrote to an old acquaintance from his Ministry of Works days that never before had he been involved in such a wide variety of exciting tasks and negotiations. He was thoroughly enjoying his new career with the AEA; although he had been away less than six months, the Ministry of Works seemed a distant memory. All that he had to remind him of his previous employment was the official briefcase he had brought with him.

A few weeks later he received a tersely-worded note demanding that Mr Donald Carmichael return the briefcase he had out on unauthorised loan from the Ministry of Works.

The above article was based largely on documents from the personal archive of Donald Carmichael, Dounreay's first permanent employee. I am grateful to Margaret Carmichael for giving me the opportunity of consulting her late husband's papers.

 

 

Highland Archives Index

 

Steven Cashmore 1998


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