The surprise decision was announced in Edinburgh by senior minister for Scotland Donald Dewar and industry minister John Battle. The government had been advised "a short time ago" that there was "no economic case for supporting commercial reprocessing at Dounreay over the longer term," Mr Battle said. Reprocessing should therefore stop around 2006, when existing commercial contracts and fuel from Dounreay itself should have been reprocessed.
With the end firmly in sight for commercial reprocessing, "decommissioning will become the business of Dounreay," said Mr Dewar. "From now on it will concentrate exclusively on cleaning up the site," a process expected to take up to 100 years.
A smaller cousin to the UK's main nuclear reprocessing site at Sellafield in north-eastern England, Dounreay has been the focus of escalating safety concerns. Following the discovery of radioactive "hot spots" on nearby beaches, a 3km fishing ban is in force around the plant. When a controversial shipment of enriched uranium from Georgia arrived in April, the reprocessing plant had been shut on the orders of the official Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. Last month, the site temporarily lost all power when the normal electricity supply was accidentally cut and backup systems failed to work.
Dounreay's 40-year history includes serious pollution incidents, such as the dumping of thousands of tonnes of radioactive waste in an underground shaft, which culminated in an explosion in 1977. The shaft is currently being cleaned up, at an estimated cost of some UK£355m (Ecu525m).
The closure announcement has led to a barrage of criticism from the opposition Conservative and Scottish National (SNP) parties. SNP leader Alex Salmond described the move as a U-turn by the government, while John Redwood for the Conservatives said that the government's nuclear policy was now in "shambles".
However, environmental groups have welcomed the run-down, with the Friends of the Earth Scotland describing the announcement as a "complete vindication" of its position that Dounreay "has been an environmental and economic folly from start to finish". The closure "is great news from Dounreay," the group said. "Sellafield must be next."
Scottish Office, tel: +44 131 556 8400; UK Atomic Energy Authority, tel: +44 1235 821 111; Friends of the Earth Scotland, tel: +44 131 554 9977.
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