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How the mighty atom came to Dorset

Alan J Miller tells the story of the atomic energy research establishment on Winfrith Heath

Pipes are prepared to carry the effluent two miles out to sea at Arish Mell

One day in November 1955, Colonel Joseph Weld received a visit at his house in East Lulworth from a Colonel Raby who represented the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). Colonel Raby wished to discuss the matter of purchasing land on Winfrith Heath on which the authority proposed to build a research establishment. Much that was discussed that day was to be subject of bitter controversy over the ensuing years because no notes were taken.

Colonel Weld was sceptical about having such an establishment on his estate: he had no need to sell the land, and as Chairman of the Dorset branches of the Landowners’ Association and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, he had a commitment to protect the beauty and integrity of the Dorset countryside. But Colonel Raby assured him that it was necessary as space at Harwell, the original research centre in Oxfordshire, was running out and a further site was needed somewhere in the country with plenty of room to build a number of experimental reactors. When Colonel Weld expressed his concern about how he and his forebears had been treated by the Ministry of Defence in the past, Colonel Raby assured him that he could expect to be treated ‘very generously’ with regard to compensation.

Colonel Weld kept his silence but the government’s plans were no secret and an opposition group calling themselves the Dorset Land Resources Committee had already been set up and was demanding a public enquiry, which opened at County Hall, Dorchester, on 8 January 1957.

The Steam Generating Heavy Water Reactor (SGHWR) in construction. It was the site’s most successful reactor and most famous landmark.

The case for UKAEA was put by Mr G D Squibb QC, who explained that out of seventy sites examined, that at Winfrith had been chosen because it had a degree of remoteness from large population centres, had reasonably good road and rail links, and offered the potential of a good labour supply from the Poole, Bournemouth and Weymouth areas. It also had a large underground fresh water supply for cooling purposes: at least a million gallons a day, which would be taken from bore holes at West Stafford and the River Frome. This immediately aroused objections from the Weymouth Water Board and the Civil Institute of Engineers, who maintained that it would seriously affect local water supplies. However, Professor Taylor of the Geological Society said that studies had revealed that this was not the case, but it might reduce the flow of the river.

Mr Squibb produced a map which showed the land to be purchased: a total of 994 acres of which 793 belonged to the Weld Estate, 75 to the Masters family, 120 to the Hyde family and 6 to Mr Bowditch. With all these proprietors negotiations would be entered into with regard to financial compensation.

The County Council had already debated the matter at its November quarterly meeting and had given its approval by 71 to 16. Other supporters were the Amalgamated Engineers Union, who argued that it would provide an impetus to training in the county, and Weymouth Town Council, who said it would give a boost to the local economy. Other rural and district councils reserved their judgement. The Dorset chambers of commerce were in support of the project.

But those totally against the project were legion. They were headed by Mr J H Arkill of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, who said that it would be a blot on Hardy’s Dorset, on the classic Egdon Heath, would result in an influx of ‘industrial people’ into an essentially rural area, and would contravene the objectives of the County Planning Committee in its housing programme. The National Farmers Union and the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers both expressed concern at the effect upon the local labour supply for their industries, which were already facing severe shortages.

When Dr James, the water consultant of the Southern Sea Fisheries Committee, said he was satisfied that the effluent would be effectively dispersed into the sea without adverse effects, it raised a further storm of protest as for the first time this statement revealed that a pipeline would be dug across the Weld Estate to discharge into the sea at Arish Mell.

The SGHWR control room

Financial compensation for dispossessed landowners proved to be a matter on which the parties could not come to an early agreement and UKAEA, determined to start construction work without further delay, forced the Winfrith Heath Bill, which gave it the right to acquire the land, through Parliament in July 1957. They followed it up with a Compulsory Purchase Order when it was clear that the differences would not be speedily resolved. Colonel Weld felt particularly aggrieved when UKAEA, even after the Superintending Valuer at Reading had proposed a commercial value for his land of £53,000, refused to pay this on the grounds that their expenditure was scrutinised by the Public Accounts Committee of the Treasury, who would not sanction this sum in the interest of the taxpayer. In view of the astronomical sums to be spent on the whole project, this appeared to be an unreasonably niggardly attitude by the government. Eventually, after many meetings and appeals, Colonel Weld was resigned to accepting the terms of a
Completion Statement in March 1959 which awarded the Lulworth Estate £25,000 plus £1,340 12s 1d to cover legal costs. He and other landholders felt that they had been the victims of government parsimony.

Construction had begun in September 1957, which turned out to be an exceptionally cold and wet winter on this far from ideal site where the barren heathland was a sodden bog. A vast drainage system had first to be installed to lower the water table so that the massive foundations of concrete and steel for the reactor buildings could be set at a depth of twenty to thirty feet. Also, a huge underground reservoir had to be constructed under Blacknoll Hill, just within the site perimeter, to hold the fresh water supply needed.

One of the first departments to be set up was the Apprentice Training School in September 1958, starting with sixty apprentices to train as mechanical and electrical engineers. By the time the School closed in 1993, over 1000 trainees has passed through its workshops and many had gone on to carry their skills into local firms.

In the summer of 1959 the construction of the five-mile-long effluent pipeline from Winfrith to the coast at Arish Mell was begun. Depending on the terrain, the welded dual steel piping had to be laid at depths of up to eighty feet, and when it reached the coast, twenty lengths of 1200-feet-long pipes were pulled out to sea by ship and welded into continuous lengths two miles long, lowered and firmly anchored to the seabed.

Zebra (Zero Energy Breeder Reactor Assembly) went operational in 1962, being used purely for research and producing no energy. It was shut down in 1983 and demolition was completed in 2006. Today most of its site is under grass.

The purpose of the Winfrith establishment was to showcase different types of nuclear reactors and by the 1960s they had a wide range of experimental and research models on line. The most successful of these was the Steam Generating Heavy Water Reactor (SGHWR), which was started in 1963, reached full output in January 1968 and continued to operate for almost 23 years supplying electricity to the National Grid. However, in 1976 the government decided not to develop this system to a fully commercial stage, it was shut down in 1990 and the plant dismantled.

Others, such as Nestor and Dimple, were among the world’s longest-running and most successful low-power generators but were closed down in 1995 when they were no longer commercially viable. Zenith, Zebra and Nero, built in the 1960s, produced no energy and were solely for the research purposes of core design, refuelling, safety and performance data to complement the reactors being built at other sites. They had served their purpose by the 1980s and shut down. The Dragon reactor was a joint project of the International Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and involved a team of scientists from many countries including Germany, Holland and Belgium.

By 1990 the Government decided that Winfrith had served its purpose and plans for decommissioning, involving strict radiation control systems, were drawn up. By 2007 all reactor halls had been removed. The centre had already diversified into other technologies, such as the Oil Recovery Projects Division in 1977 to provide expertise to the Department of Energy related to oil exploration work. In 1996 the site was opened to other technology-based companies and became known as the Winfrith Technology Centre.

In November 2004, all the site except 138 acres (56 hectares) at the eastern end was taken over by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which ensures the safe and complete clean-up of all the former UK nuclear energy sites. The Authority confirms that Winfrith will be the first major nuclear site to be fully decommissioned and completely clean by 2020 at a cost of £470 million. The pipeline to Arish Mell is still operating; although the volume of discharge is considerably reduced, it will need annual maintenance work for some years to come.

Winfrith Heath was designated a National Nature Reserve in August 1985 and 250 acres of land (101 hectares) comprising part of Whitcombe Vale sold to the Dorset Wildlife Trust in March 2000. As other sections of the site have been declared surplus, the so-called Crichel Down rules have been applied and some land re-purchased by the original owners. There have also been other sales for highway improvement and for the County Police Headquarters.

The headquarters of Qinetiq, one of the first and largest tenants of Winfrith Technology Centre’s Scientific and Technical Park

Fifty years on, the Winfrith establishment has become part of Dorset’s history. Many thousands of workers of all ranks, from the leaders of a vast scientific team of the highest international status, through managers and technicians to the day-to-day secretarial, catering and maintenance staff, have passed their working lives there. It has left a valuable commercial business centre employing over 1000 people and, despite the early fears, has not been a blot on the landscape or endangered the environment to an unacceptable degree; on balance, the decision to place it here has turned out to be an asset in most respects.

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