The potential of tidal energy and the prospect of the world’s biggest underwater power station being built in the Pentland Firth has been in the headlines. But it’s not the only potential area of new employment for Dounreay workers that the site is supporting.
In the 1970s, development of the North Sea resulted in a huge construction boom. Tens of thousands of jobs were created in the design, fabrication and installation of the huge platforms, subsea installations and pipelines needed to bring the oil ashore.
Caithness made a strong pitch to become a hub of this new industry. But it’s generally believed the economic argument made by the area’s leaders for Government support was hampered by the boom in work already happening at Dounreay in the early 1970s. Much of the work ended up in the inner Moray Firth and Grampian instead.
Now, 40 years after the first boom, a second wave of economic opportunity is emerging from the North Sea, this time in its decommissioning as the oil fields near the end of their natural working lives.
In 2008, officials at the UK’s energy department and Scotland’s two development agencies commissioned a study of the offshore supply chain and its capacity to decommission the North Sea. One of those they turned to for help was Dounreay, which had experience of the supply chain in nuclear decommissioning.
Simon Coles, a chartered mechanical engineer then working in the contracts department of DSRL, joined the group.
The group valued the scope of work at £20-30 billion by 2040, peaking somewhere around 2015-24.
One of its recommendations was an umbrella organisation that could bring together the supply chain. The combined capacity of an independent body was seen as essential if the supply chain was engage effectively with the major multi-nationals who own the infrastructure.
Decom North Sea was set up a year ago with pump-priming from a UK government keen to see as much of the work carried out by UK firms as possible. Simon was appointed to the board.
“The more you look at the two decommissioning sectors, the more you begin to see the similarities between them,” explained Simon, who’s now in charge of decommissioning projects delivery for Dounreay’s reactors.
“The overlap between the skill sets is about 80 per cent. The mindset of decommissioning is different from operation and we’ve already developed the appropriate mindset in Dounreay and Caithness.
“The environmental issues of removing structures that have become natural havens for marine life are obvious. So, too, are the engineering and waste management issues, including the need to manage the large volumes of naturally-occurring radioactive material.
“The skills we have here at Dounreay are exactly the sort of skills the supply chain will need to develop to meet the opportunities that are now beginning to reach the market.”
There are more than 600 oil and gas installations in the North Sea, 470 of them in UK waters. They range from small steel lattice-work structures to large heavy concrete or steel structures, often bigger in size than the Eiffel Tower and much heavier, with topside weights exceeding 10,000 tonnes.
Under current regulations, more than 90 per cent of offshore structures will need to be removed completely and brought ashore for re-use, recycling or disposal.