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New on-line photo library reveals Queen Mother inside DFR

November 02, 2009

The Queen Mother at the controls of the fast reactor in August 1961

A unique photographic record of the Queen Mother at the cutting edge of Britain’s quest for nuclear energy 50 years ago has been published for the first time.

The images were taken during two royal visits to Dounreay in the heyday of Britain’s fast reactor research and development programme.

They show her inside the Dounreay Fast Reactor meeting engineers and scientists who built the first reactor of its kind anywhere in the world to generate electricity for public use.

The Queen Mother had bought the Castle of Mey, about 20 miles from Dounreay at the other end of the Pentland Firth, a few years earlier.

Her first visit happened on October 15, 1957 when much of the site was still under construction. She returned on August 17, 1961 and was taken into the now-operational reactor housed inside a giant sphere.

Many of the 35 or so official photographs of the visits have never been published before.

They are among more than a thousand photographs of Dounreay past and present posted to a new on-line picture library.

They can be viewed at www.dounreay.com as part of an initiative to open up the work of dismantling the site to closer public inspection.

Members of the public cannot access Dounreay during its decommissioning for safety and security reasons, so the site believes an on-line library like this is another way for members of the public to look inside and see how their money is being spent.

It is also creates a public record that preserves important aspects of Dounreay’s heritage.

“The photo library will make an important contribution to preserving and communicating Dounreay’s cultural heritage by allowing the public access to unique collections of photographs such as the Queen’s Mother’s visits to Dounreay,” explained James Gunn, heritage officer at Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd.

Among those who were introduced to the Queen Mother on her 1961 visit was Ben McGrory, a fitter who chaired the shop stewards committee at the site.

“The site director, Dr Robert Hurst, wanted the trade unions to be part of the visit, so I was introduced to her on the floor inside the sphere,” recalled Ben, now 83 and retired in nearby Thurso.

“We were well groomed beforehand. If we were spoken to, we were to refer to her in the first instance as Her Majesty and Ma’am after that.

“I remember she was very pleasant. She recognised by my accent that I wasn’t local. I was from the Clydebank area originally and had worked in John Brown’s shipyard and its boiler plant before starting at Dounreay in 1958.”

Ben, who retired from Dounreay in 1986, said the visit added to the feeling of pride in Dounreay at the time.

“There was a sense of euphoria inside Dounreay at the time at what had been achieved with the fast reactor.

“In Thurso, there was still some feelings of opposition, not towards the atomic authority but to the atomicers who’d moved in. The Queen Mother coming to Dounreay I think helped. She always considered herself to be Scots, she’d been welcomed into the community after buying the Castle of Mey and there was a real warmth to the informal way she integrated with the community.”

According to the Caithness Courier of August 23, 1961, the Queen Mother "delighted both scientists and technicians with her interest".

The paper reported: "During her visit, she switched on increased operating power for the reactor and later worked the intricate manipulators handling radioactive metals inside solid concrete containers, peering through special windows to keep her free from radiation effects as she did so.

"Wearing a silver-blue tweed coat with silver fox trimmings, she was officially welcomed by Brigadier Sir Keith Murray, Deputy Lieutenant of Caithness, Sir Roger Makins, chairman of the U.K.A.E.A. and Dr Robert Hurst, director of Dounreay.

"Before starting her tour of inspection, Mr J.L. Phillips, head of the reactor division, explained briefly the main features of the fast reactor and told her of the progress they had made in overcoming certain difficulties encountered during the commissioning period.

"He also spoke of the modifications which had been designed to overcome these difficulties. He said that had now been completed and the reactor became operational again last Monday.

"Before returning to the director’s dining room for lunch after her tour, the Queen Mother told Mr Phillips how much she appreciated her tour and remarked on the great change in Dounreay since her last visit in 1957.

"The Queen Mother visited the atomic authority’s new hostel for apprentices in Thurso in the afternoon. The £70,000 hostel is managed by the Y.M.C.A. on behalf of the authortty and the manager, Mr James Garioch, a native of Dinnet (sic), was presented to the Queen Mother."

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