Torness nuclear plant in East Lothian, Scotland

Nuclear engineering in an independent Scotland

What will the future hold for Scotland's nuclear engineering industry if the nation votes for independence?

On 18 September 2014, voters in Scotland will decide whether the country will remain part of the UK or take a different path as an independent state. If a majority of voters choose independence, the negotiations preparing for the split will affect a broad range of industries.

Scotland's nuclear sector is not well known despite its big impact on the wider industry. From the fast reactor experiments and plutonium production for nuclear weapons at Dounreay from 1955, to Scottish Nuclear, which was formed to take over reactors at Hunterston and Torness from the South of Scotland Electricity Board, the skills of Scotland's nuclear engineering staff and their contribution to global nuclear development are mostly unrecognised.

Many people are familiar with the mistakes made at Dounreay, but few are aware of the continuous role Scotland's nuclear engineers have played over the decades. Even today, the control room of the Dounreay Fast Reactor is to be removed and put on display in London, rather than in Caithness where it was built.

Despite the ongoing financial value of existing decommissioning work and the significant amounts of electricity being produced at Torness, in East Lothian, and Hunterston, in Ayrshire, Scotland's nuclear industry is mainly invisible.

You could be forgiven for thinking that because the Scottish government has stated it will veto any new nuclear plant, there is no future for nuclear engineers in an independent Scotland – but that is not the case. There are several non-operational nuclear sites, which are in various stages of care and maintenance or decommissioning, and these will need engineers for many decades to come. Their waste must be managed and disposed of, as is the case in every country, and these tasks take time and significant amounts of money if they are to be done properly.

A Scottish government spokesperson points out that decommissioning work in Scotland and elsewhere will require a highly skilled workforce, which will present opportunities for those already working in this sector, adding: "It is also anticipated that there will be significant demand for engineers and related professionals across the wider energy sector. Working with industry and our skills and enterprise agencies, we will look at the needs and provisions available to support those with relevant transferable experience to up-skill and take advantage of these opportunities."

The Scottish government recently published 'Scotland's Future – your guide to an independent Scotland'. This addresses several questions relevant to the nuclear power industry. In terms of money, it states that in an independent Scotland, the decommissioning costs of the three non-operational sites (Dounreay, Hunterston A and Chapelcross) will continue to be met by the taxpayer.

In contrast, decommissioning operational sites Hunterston B and Torness is to be funded by the private companies running these sites. This is significant, because it will mean that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) will not be responsible for those costs.


The skills required to decommission nuclear sites include general nuclear engineering, as well as specific ones, such as dealing with sodium waste and plutonium contaminated material (Dounreay), Magnox decommissioning (Hunterston A and Chapelcross), advanced gas-cooled reactor decommissioning (Torness and Hunterston B), putting sites into a care and maintenance phase and general tasks, such as draining and dismantling fuel ponds and remediating contaminated land.

The tasks at each site are set on somewhat changing timelines and, in older sites, often do not go to plan as facilities are sometimes not built as per drawings and have been subject to ad-hoc repairs over the years. Taking Chapelcross as an example, a care and maintenance phase is planned for 2028, with closure after 2085.

Dounreay's plans have changed repeatedly depending on who is running the facility and what the budget is. Site work is now set for completion in 2025, but the operators say there will still be a continuing need for management: "This includes higher activity waste that will be looked after near site, near surface beyond 2025."

The end state for each site will be a matter for public consultation. Some communities want industrial sites with jobs, while others are looking for green field areas. Some sites will have permanent nuclear waste disposal.

Who is responsible for nuclear assets and liabilities post-independence remains to be decided. "The precise division of assets and liabilities will be subject to detailed negotiation between the Scottish and Westminster governments, working together constructively in the best interests of the people of Scotland and the rest of the UK, as set out in the Edinburgh Agreement," a Scottish government spokesperson says.

On the question of waste, 'Scotland's Future' states that an independent Scotland will ensure that the nuclear legacy inherited from the UK is managed "safely and effectively", with a "robust regulatory regime" and "effective long-term management" of the decommissioning sites. The question of what will be inherited is a fluid one, since large amounts of nuclear material is currently being moved from Dounreay to Sellafield, in England, following a decision by the NDA.

This large export of waste to England runs contrary to the position which developed in Scotland after Nirex gave up its attempt to site a UK deep repository in Caithness in 1991. There was a strong feeling at the time that communities and society have an ethical responsibility to take care of their own nuclear waste.

The Scottish SNP government's stated policy is for near-site, near surface disposal of nuclear waste, but at the moment a great deal of radioactive material, which would probably have been disposed of in Caithness as waste, is now being exported to England. This means reduction of Scottish liabilities and has been argued for on the basis of keeping the most dangerous wastes together at Sellafield. There is also an idea that it might be used at Sellafield, although the site has well-established reprocessing and waste management problems.

The removal of this material means that expensive high-security stores and ongoing policing will not be required at Dounreay in later years, but it does mean that money is being spent handling and packaging waste for transport over the next few years, as well as on security provision for the transports.

Mark Rouse, managing director of Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd, says: "A new plan showing how the fuels removal programme integrates with the rest of the decommissioning work should be ready by the autumn 2014. DSRL expects no reduction in supply chain spending and will be looking to place substantial additional new packages of work into the supply chain over a longer period of time than the original contract award plan shows."

Disposal vaults

As for low-level waste, in May 2014 two large completed vaults were handed over to Dounreay's operators to take waste currently on site. These are the first of up to six vaults that will bring disposal up to modern standards for the long term. The first two vaults and ancillary plant were developed for about £20m. The total cost of managing low-level waste (LLW) through the site closure programme is put at around £110m.

Dounreay has a military neighbour, the Vulcan Naval Reactor Testing Establishment, which is where the pressurised water reactors are tested for the UK's nuclear-powered submarines. The waste from these facilities is managed on site and at Dounreay.

Most intermediate-level waste (ILW) from all Scottish nuclear plants is currently stored on site while most LLW, with the exception of Dounreay's, is disposed of at the repository near Drigg, in Cumbria.

The ongoing failure of the UK deep repository programme and lack of a robust ethical approach to it, contrary to lessons learned from other countries such as Sweden, has resulted in prolonged failure to find a long-term solution for ILW – whether that is geological disposal or otherwise.

Dounreay's new LLW vaults are to be backfilled, which in reality is near-surface disposal. Whether this will be deemed as acceptable for ILW depends on feelings about the issue in the future. If the current export of waste from Dounreay to England is an example, then it may be the case that decisions will not be challenged robustly. For engineers, this means that there may be work ahead creating disposal facilities for ILW, as well as LLW disposal vaults.

The SNP government is against any new nuclear plants and it is improbable that a future government, most likely a Labour/Liberal coalition, would approve either. Scotland has been making strong moves since devolution to promote renewable energy and portray itself as an ideal place to develop tidal power and offshore wind; future Labour/Liberal governments would probably support this.

In tandem, existing nuclear generating capacity is still operating. Hunterston B had been scheduled to close in 2016, but in 2012 owner EDF made a successful application for a seven-year life extension to 2023. EDF's Torness plant is due to be decommissioned in 2023, but its operators may also apply for an extension, and there is no indication that an appropriate application would be refused. This means it is likely that an independent Scotland will have nuclear electricity for some time to come, and jobs at these plants are likely to continue.

Scotland is a net exporter of electricity, sending 12,896GWh (26.1 per cent of generation) to the rest of the UK in 2012. In the same year, renewables and nuclear generated nearly two-thirds of Scotland's electricity output (29.8 per cent and 34 per cent respectively).

Scotland's transmission network is geared up to have big generators, like Torness and Hunterston, in the central belt but the '600m upgrading of long-standing bottlenecks, such as the Beauly to Denny line, is an important infrastructure for renewable generation in the north.

Energy security is a key area in EU energy policy, and an independent Scotland would be well-placed in this respect due to its immense potential for renewable energy within its borders, as well as existing renewable, nuclear, coal and hydro-generation.

The Tridents

Nuclear weapons are a key issue in the independence debate. The current Scottish government's stated position is that the Trident nuclear weapons system, carried by four Vanguard-class submarines based at Faslane on the Clyde, should be removed after independence. Each is armed with up to 16 Trident 2 D5 nuclear missiles. The SNP has stated that removal of the weapons should be part of a post-independence constitution.

A government spokesperson says: "The Scottish government is firmly committed to the speediest safe removal of Trident nuclear weapons from Scotland. Agreeing the process and timetable for their withdrawal would be a priority for negotiation between the Scottish government and the Westminster government."

Removing nuclear weapons from Scotland will not be simple or cheap. Funding new facilities and the unpopularity of accepting a nuclear weapons complex in an area are just two issues that would crop up. There are also competitors for defence funding that may prefer to see the weapons system either removed from the budget altogether by ending the programme, or have much more responsibility shifted to the USA, since it already sells the Trident missiles to the UK.

The current Scottish government is committed to Nato membership and has set out its post-independence defence plans. In 'Scotland's Future' it says that Faslane would be retained as a fully operational naval base, with the addition of a joint forces headquarters, making it possible to sustain its existing 6,700 military personnel posts.

The guide assures that Scottish companies would still be able to bid for Ministry of Defence (MoD) contracts after independence. 

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