The sparsely populated region of Caithness in northern Scotland once prospered thanks to a nuclear energy test facility. Now wind and wave energy are set to take over.
A ferry has docked at the pier in Scrabster, the northernmost harbour on the British mainland. It takes just 90 minutes to get from here to the Scottish archipelago of Orkney when the weather is good. The sea in between is called the Pentland Firth, one of the world's wildest stretches of water. It's known for its high winds and strong currents. But, it is these elements that could secure the future of the region, in the form of renewable energy.
Thirteen kilometers (eight miles) along the coast, a white dome rises up behind a high-security fence. Dounreay, more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) north of London, was chosen as the site for a nuclear facility back in 1955. While protesters in the cities warned of the risks, a lot of people up here were grateful for thousands of new jobs and the investment that came with the project. Fishermen sold their boats and took jobs at the new plant.
No more nuclear
Now the whole region here, Caithness, is about to enter a new era. Dounreay is to be completely decommissioned by 2023. More than 2,000 jobs will be lost. This, in an area with a population of just 26,000. "One job in three is dependent on Dounreay in one way or another", says Trudy Morris, Chief executive of the Caithness Chamber of Commerce.
The decision to decommission Dounreay was made back in 1994. At the end of last year, the final contract to close down the nuclear site was awarded to the Dounreay Partnership, a joint venture by the British company Babcock and the US firms CH2M Hill and URS.
Charles McVay is the senior manager responsible for disposing of waste from the Scottish site. He has been up here in the far north of Scotland since December 2011. He faces a daunting task. "Our current schedule is to reach the interim end state by 2023. That means all the buildings will be gone, the soil remediated where necessary, the waste stored", McVay told DW.
The US expert is confident the work will be completed in time to meet the deadline. But as well as the huge challenge of dealing with highly toxic radioactive material without harm to humans or the environment, McVay has another more immediate problem.
"Because we have such a highly skilled work force, lots of industries are very interested in Dounreay staff, especially the North Sea oil sector. So we have to ensure that we maintain an attractive work environment versus some of our competitors", McVay explains. "We’re going to put in place a retention programme to encourage folk to keep working at Dounreay during the period of decommissioning."
New jobs in green energy
Making sure the highly qualified work force has prospects to stay in the region after the closure of Dounreay also is a priority for Roy Kirk. He heads the Caithness section of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the public agency responsible for developing the region.
Kirk sees the wind parks being set up off the coast as a key source of employment for the coming years. At the same time, on the other side of the Pentland Firth in Orkney, marine energy is being tested and perfected at EMEC, the European Marine Energies Centre. "Because of the progress made in Orkney, we are now ready to step into a commercial dimension of marine power ", says Kirk.
There are still 2,000 engineers, safety experts, managers and other skilled people working for Dounreay at the moment. Kirk is convinced their qualifications are directly transferable to marine energy.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise is working with the local chamber of commerce to make sure as many of them as possible stay here to help transform the region into a center for the offshore renewables sector. Caithness Chamber of Commerce head Trudy Morris, secured funding from the Scottish government, the European Social Fund, the Nuclear Decomissioning Authority and Dounreay to make the transition work.