Since the 1950s it has been the site of two nuclear establishments, for the development of prototype fast breeder reactors and submarine reactor testing. Most of these facilities are now being decommissioned.
The site is used by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment) and the Ministry of Defence (Vulcan Naval Reactor Test Establishment) HMS Vulcan – sits next to, but was operated separately from, the Dounreay nuclear power complex on the north Caithness coast. Vulcan has been the MoD’s facility for testing new designs of nuclear submarine reactors since the 1950s.
The site is known for its five nuclear reactors, three owned and operated by the UKAEA and two by the Ministry of Defence.
The nuclear power establishment was built on the site of a World War II airfield, RAF Dounreay. It became HMS Tern (II) when the airfield was transferred to the Admiralty by RAF Coastal Command in 1944, as a satellite of HMS Tern at Twatt in Orkney.