The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (the Authority) was established in 1954 as a statutory corporation to oversee and pioneer the development of nuclear energy within the United Kingdom. It is now an executive non-departmental public body within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
The Authority made pioneering developments in nuclear power, overseeing the peaceful development of nuclear technology and performing much scientific research.
In 1971 the the Authority was split into three, with only research activities remaining with the Authority. The Radiochemical Centre Ltd (later Amersham plc) took over production of medical and industrial radioisotopes. British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) took over nuclear fuel and weapons material producing activities: the manufacturing plant at Springfields, the enrichment plant at Capenhurst, the spent-fuel facility at Windscale, and the dual-purpose Calder Hall and Chapelcross military plutonium producing reactors.
In the late 1980s, the Authority was put into Trading Fund mode, where it was required to act and account as though it were a commercial enterprise. In the 1990s the Authority was split, with the more commercial parts transferred into a public company AEA Technology, which was then floated on the London Stock Exchange, while the parts directly related to nuclear liabilities that would need decommissioning were retained.
Its modern role is to decommission nuclear facilities used for the UK's research and development program and restore the environment of the sites. Since the early 1990s the Authority has completed more decommissioning work than anyone in Europe, and has had considerable success in regenerating former nuclear sites for commercial use.
The Authority also operates UK and European fusion power research programs at Culham in Oxfordshire, including the world's most powerful fusion device, the Joint European Torus. The research aims to develop fusion as a commercially viable, environmentally sound energy source for the future.
On the 1st April 2008, the Authority announced a major re-structuring to meet its decommissioning strategy. A new wholly owned subsidiary, UKAEA Limited, formed with established expertise from the existing company, to focus on nuclear decommissioning and environmental restoration management and consultancy in the UK and international markets. At the same time, a new company, formed out of the existing Authority team at Dounreay and called Dounreay Site Restoration Limited (DSRL), was licensed by the Health and Safety Executive to operate the site and carry out its decommissioning under the Authority’s management.
In parallel with these changes, the site at Windscale in Cumbria was re-licensed to the Sellafield Ltd site licence company, following close review and scrutiny by the Health and Safety Executive and environmental and security regulators. The majority of Authority employees at the site transferred to Sellafield Ltd.
On the 2nd February 2009, the Authority announced the next stage in re-structuring. A new company, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Authority, was formed from the existing teams at Harwell in Oxfordshire and Winfrith in Dorset and licensed by the Health and Safety Executive to operate those sites. Research Sites Restoration Limited (RSRL) will continue the decommissioning programmes for Harwell and Winfrith on behalf of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).
In October 2009, Babcock International Group PLC agreed to acquire UKAEA Limited, the nuclear clean-up subsidiary of the Authority, including its subsidiary companies DSRL and RSRL. At the same time, the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) was launched as the new name for the home of UK Fusion research.
Authority site locations:
Historical site locations:
In the 1950s, the UK Government was persuaded to invest in the development of fast breeder reactors as a more efficient means of generating electricity from the country's scarce supplies of uranium. Following early research at Harwell in Oxfordshire, the Government in 1954 selected Dounreay in Caithness as the centre of research and development.
Three reactors, chemical plants and various laboratory and waste facilities were built there. The first nuclear reaction in Scotland occurred at Dounreay in a test cell in 1957 and the site's material test reactor was the first nuclear reactor in Scotland. The experimental fast breeder reactor, housed in an iconic sphere, operated until 1977. In 1962, it became the first fast reactor in the world to supply electricity to a national grid, proving the concept.
A larger prototype fast reactor went critical at Dounreay in 1974. But hopes of commercial development of fast reactors in the UK receded in the 1980s. In 1988, the UK Government announced fast reactors would not be required for the foreseeable future. Reactor operations ceased at Dounreay in 1994 and reprocessing of irradiated fuel came to a premature halt in 1996 as a result of a plant breakdown which the Government in 2001 decided not to repair.
An audit of safety by regulators in 1998 proved a turning point in the history of the site, signalling the end of all nuclear operations and the beginning of the site closure programme. The original timescale for decommissioning of 100 years has been reduced steadily. Currently, the clean-out and demolition of all the redundant facilities is scheduled for completion by 2025. Hazardous intermediate-level waste will remain in secure, above-ground stores beyond this date pending a national policy for its long-term management. Access to areas of land contaminated with radioactivity is likely to be restricted until 2300. There is a debate about whether to retain the iconic sphere as an industrial and architectural monument to the site's leading world role in the 20th century.
The major hazards at Dounreay today consist of the liquid metals used as coolant in the fast reactors and the liquid wastes generated from reprocessing. Other clean-up tasks include an unlined vertical shaft used to dispose of intermediate-level waste until an explosion in 1977 and radioactive particles polluting the nearby seabed and beaches.
Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd, a subsidiary of UKAEA Limited, manages the clean-up on behalf of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Annual turn is approximately £150m a year. The site employs approximately 2000 people, representing one in every five jobs in the local economy. A partnership of public agencies has published an action plan to regenerate the local economy and end its dependence on the nuclear industry.