Scottish Design Icons: Dounreay

Scottish Design Icons is a series of small articles showcasing the big hitters of Scottish design. Nicole Sangster recalls childhood moments spent near the Dounreay Fast Reactor, the unlikely cause of her existence.

Growing up, on the way to my grandparents’ house my family and I would drive past the Dounreay Fast Reactor (or ‘the big golf ball’, as I knew it) and I’d shout: “that’s where grandad works!”. In 1973 my mother’s family moved to Scotland (where she would eventually meet my father) because my grandad was offered a job as an engineer at Dounreay. You could say that if it weren’t for his move for the job there, I wouldn’t exist.

The Dounreay Fast Reactor was the world’s first fast nuclear reactor to supply energy to a national grid and, like V&A Dundee, its construction was groundbreaking. The golf ball-like housing was designed by Motherwell Bridge & Engineering Company as a perfect sphere with no weak points; it could tolerate the most extreme build-up of pressure if the reactor circuits breached. Steel plates were welded in-situ to create a completely sealed environment and the remote location for the site was a deliberate safety decision.

Bringing thousands of people to Caithness for work and boosting the economy of the area, Dounreay had a great impact on the north of Scotland. Fast reactors were seen as the future of electricity production at the time.

Next to the reactor, Sandside beach in Reay is five minutes down the road from my grandparents’ house. Before you even set foot on the sand, you’re met with signs warning visitors not to remove objects or material from the beach due to the radioactive particles that have been detected there. My mum admits that she and her friends ignored this as children and would frequently gather shells from the shore.

The reactor’s famous golf ball structure is now a landmark of the area. Originally a safety precaution to contain a blast, it was hoped to be conserved and converted. But due to the low-level radioactivity and the high maintenance costs, it will be demolished in the near future. Models of the reactor, like the one on display in the Scottish Design Galleries, along with the memories of those who worked there or lived nearby, help us remember this unique icon of design and engineering.

Nicole Sangster is the Assistant Digital Producer at V&A Dundee.