FOR more than 50 years, it has been the pumping heart of the Caithness economy with employment heavily reliant on the opportunities it created.
But as the decommissioning of Dounreay gathers pace — with the operation expected to be completed by 2023 — new figures suggest the far north is already starting to adapt to life without the nuclear industry.
Findings show that local businesses are becoming less dependent on Dounreay, with the number of firms in the county relying less on the former reactor complex over the last five years.
In 2006, 15 per cent of jobs were said to rely on the work that the site created but last year the figure fell to 10 per cent.
The study, entitled "The Socio Economic Impacts of Dounreay Decommissioning" was commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise and DSRL from Grangeston Economics as a follow-up to a previous study from 2006.
The report examined economic data as well as surveying Dounreay workers, contractors and local supply chain companies.
Nearly four out of five of the latter reported increased turnover in the last five years, with around half finding a declining proportion of its turnover linked to work at Dounreay.
Dounreay Stakeholder Group trade union representative John Deighan said that while the positive report was welcome, there was still work available at the site and the final years of decommissioning should be used to help train apprentices for future opportunities.
"There is still major contracts being won at the site and we must make sure that unemployed youngsters are trained up and learn the required skills that the area will need," he said.
"We must ensure that the companies that win these contracts leave some sort of legacy by putting a tie-in that training our future workforce is part of the deal.
"While it’s encouraging that businesses are relying less on Dounreay for work, we must maximise the opportunities that still exist at the site."
Mr Deighan added: "There is no magic solution to the rundown mode but proving that we have a trained workforce will attract more business to the area as if we don’t, we’ll become a community of pensioners."
The report also shows that over the last five years, more than 150 businesses have committed to or retained hundreds of jobs in the region.
Talks could lead to the Pentland Firth becoming Scotland’s first marine energy park, strengthening the area’s ties with renewable development.
Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross MP John Thurso, said that given the current nationwide recession, it was encouraging to see many businesses looking to the future.
"In tough economic conditions, it is a tribute to both the Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership and local businesses that exports from the area have increased and Dounreay-dependent work has decreased by almost a third," he said.
"There is still a great deal to do, but it shows the strategy is delivering real progress."
The MP added: "The next few years will be critical but local businesses are in the right sectors to expand.
"Supporting existing businesses, helping new start-ups and encouraging spin-offs from Dounreay will all play a key part in ensuring a strong economy for the future."
The results are a far cry from a similar economic report which was released in 1989 which predicted that the county would be hard hit as the site approached the end of its working life.
It said that the initial reduction in the workforce in Dounreay would reduce local opportunities and lead to the loss of 1600 jobs at the site and 800 jobs in the local area by 1997.
Caithness Chamber of Commerce chief executive Trudy Morris said that the results of the report were in line with its belief that businesses in the county were starting to adapt to life after Dounreay.
"These are challenging times for the business community and for the area’s wider workforce," she said.
"But this report does support our view that the economy of the north is changing, and that individuals and companies are responding to the challenges and trying to capitalise on future opportunities."