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Council backs 'once-in-a-lifetime' opportunity to establish a fusion reactor at Dounreay that if successful guarantees years of work and hundreds of millions of pounds in investment

By Scott Maclennan

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Conceptual illustration of the STEP fusion power plant.
Conceptual illustration of the STEP fusion power plant.

Highland councillors have given unanimous backing to a massively ambitious bid to establish Dounreay as the site of a prototype nuclear fusion power plant.

The UK Atomic Energy Authority has £222 million to spend on developing what is known as Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP).

Along with Chapelcross in Dumfries and Galloway, Dounreay is considered one of the preferred sites for the development of the new power plant.

The council was asked whether it approved of the bid process moving ahead and agreed, including all the Caithness councillors.

The project is viewed as potentially game-changing for the north as it would offer a truly vital economic lifeline to an area battling some of the most severe depopulation in the country.

Council leader Margaret Davidson summed up the feelings of many councillors, saying: “After over 20 years in public life, you know it when you see it, and what you are seeing here is – opportunity. "Opportunity that could bring with it hope and it could really change the whole tenor of Caithness as it looks to the future.

“It will retain the skills and the families in the north, these won’t just be jobs, these will be good jobs, jobs that earn people a decent standard of living and give people a real sense of belonging in their communities."

Labour group leader Jimmy Gray said: “If we are speaking to the UK government we should be speaking in a united voice and in a clear voice – Highland Council supports this opportunity, it is a unique opportunity. I support this overwhelmingly.”

However, the SNP’s Kirsteen Currie has some reservations about the plan, saying: “I would like to speak for the minority view.

"From my point of view I think the council should take a more pragmatic and perhaps cynical view of the competition process for this experiment. For me there are still too many unknowns.”

Caithness councillor Struan Mackie, who chairs the Dounreay Stakeholder Group and was recognised as the most knowledgeable member on nuclear power issue, said: “STEP is a true once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Today’s meeting was a vote of confidence in Caithness and north Sutherland and allows our community to officially enter the competition for the UK Atomic Energy Authority fusion programme.

“Since the establishment of the Dounreay site in the 1950s, the far north has gained an unparalleled track record in critical research, construction, operating and decommissioning of prototypical energy generation.

“This experience, knowledge and world-leading supply chain lends itself ideally to commercial fusion and makes Caithness and north Sutherland an ideal site.

“Something that I believe will be demonstrated clearly in the bid from the Caithness and North Sutherland Regeneration Partnership.

“The unanimous support of the Highland Council will be welcomed in the far north, where local stakeholders have already enthusiastically backed the plans.

“We have a generation of young people desperate to stay in the region and I am hopeful that the decision taken today will allow us to make one small step towards not just their future but the retention of the valuable skills we already have.”

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