IT was 60 years ago this week that Chapelcross nuclear power station officially opened to inaugurate the commercial nuclear age in Scotland. On May 2, 1959, the Lord Lieutenant of Dumfriesshire, Sir John Crabbe, who called the new works “a monument to progress and the nuclear era”, performed the opening ceremony of Scotland’s first nuclear power station that sent electricity to the National Grid.

Scotland already had Dounreay, very much an experimental nuclear power site where the UK Government wanted to develop fast breeder reactors. Three reactors were built there in the 1950s but did not export power to the National Grid until 1962.

Chapelcross, by comparison, was a Magnox-type reactor, a design which Britain pioneered but which is now found exclusively in North Korea.

Looking back at the history of Chapelcross, it was very much a product of the Cold War.

It is important to note that it was built mainly to supply plutonium for Britain’s nuclear weapons and electricity production was a secondary, though valuable, concern.

Built on the site of a wartime training airfield, RAF Annan, just two miles from the town of that name, Chapelcross and its twin plant at Calder Hall in Cumbria were commissioned and originally operated by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA).

Chapelcross had four uranium-fuelled Magnox reactors and four huge cooling towers that were arguably the most distinctive man-made sight in all of Dumfries and Galloway. At its peak, Chapelcross had a generating capacity of 240MW of electrical power.

There was no hiding what Chapelcross was really all about. Successive Conservative governments under Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Harold MacMillan made it perfectly clear that Britain would have its own nuclear weapons. While a British inter-continental ballistic missile was still on the drawing board – we eventually had to buy Polaris from the US – the Royal Navy and its Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force were tasked with being capable of delivering nuclear bombs around the globe if necessary, though the USSR was always the principal target.

That plutonium was its main product did not stop successive governments dressing up the Chapelcross project – they maintained that plutonium would be the by-product of electricity generation instead of the other way round. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) campaigned to convince the public of the truth.

After the disastrous secret fire at Windscale/Sellafield in 1958, the UKAEA relied mainly on the twin stations at Calder Hall and Chapelcross for the fissile material it supplied to the nuclear weapons programme.

Plutonium from Calder Hall – it opened in 1956 – and Chapelcross was used mainly in free-fall bombs such as the Red Beard, the UK’s first tactical nuclear weapon. Blue Danube had been the first British nuclear bomb but was quickly outmoded and Red Beard was introduced in 1961 and went into operational service the following year.

Throughout its operational life, Chapelcross continued to send material to Aldermaston for inclusion in Britain’s atomic bombs and missiles – first plutonium and then tritium.

It also supplied power to the National Grid from 1959 right up to 2004 when the plant, by then controlled by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, ceased production.

Chapelcross had a relatively good safety record in comparison to other nuclear power stations around the world. There was almost a disaster in 1967 when fuel caught fire in one of the reactors and radioactivity was released, but it was contained quickly. In 1999 there were four “pollution incidents” at the plant, with a further four incidents in 2001, including the accidental dropping of 24 fuel rods as they were being removed from a reactor.

After production ceased, the site was transferred to the Nuclear Decommission Authority and in 2005, decommissioning work began, much of it carried out by Magnox Ltd.

Despite a local campaign to keep them as part of the nation’s industrial heritage, the four giant cooling towers were demolished on May 20, 2007. They were brought down by explosives in spectacular fashion, reducing the towers to 25,000 tonnes of rubble in15 seconds – you can see it on Youtube.

Defuelling of the reactors was only completed in February 2013, after which a massive project began to dismantle 3000 tonnes of steelwork in each of the 16 heat exchange towers. That was only completed in November 2018, with most of the steel cleaned and recycled.

A significant factor in the project was the removal of 3000 tonnes of dangerous asbestos. At its peak, the cost of decommissioning Chapelcross was running at up to £50 million per year.

Complete decommission of Chapelcross is not expected until 2028. Meanwhile there are numerous plans for the 190-hectare site on which peak employment saw 400 people working at Chapelcross.

Early last year, the Devil’s Porridge Museum in nearby Eastriggs began to offer “tours” of Chapelcross, but only by donning a virtual headset that allows visitors to see inside the power station at its peak. So in one way, Chapelcross really is a museum piece.