Nuclear engineer who commissioned the fast reactor at Dounreay

Born June 8, 1936;

Died: October 15, 2018

DR GEORGE Hines, who has died aged 82, was a nuclear engineer and a member of the small team that commissioned the fast reactor at the Dounreay plant in Caithness by linking it to the UK's National Grid in 1962.

The livewire link was hailed as a world first, a notable feat for the British team of scientists, engineers and construction staff that had designed, built and were now commissioning the country's first fast reactor, a type of advanced, but complex, experimental plant that was regarded then as the long-term route for delivering power on a large scale.

Dr Hines, a bright working-class boy and one of a family of five to Alfred and Alice Hines, of Paddington, London, had been brought up in London and after passing his 11-plus won a place at the Quintin Grammar School in Regent Street.

Continuing his studies at the Sir John Cass College of Arts and Sciences, he emerged with a first in metallurgy and was then offered the chance to continue to advanced PhD level at London, into aspects of nuclear physics.

He was offered his first working post as a management trainee with the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) at the Berkeley atomic power-station, the earliest of three first-generation Magnox plants, in the lower valley of the River Severn. There was only one snag: Berkeley's construction phase was not yet completed, so the station was not quite ready.

So CEGB bosses asked Dr Hines if he would go to Scotland's "remote" north coast on a short-term assignment to commission the soon-to-be operational fast breeder reactor at Dounreay. Yes, he would, he said - a decision that would change his life.

The 'demonstration' 15MW Dounreay fast reactor was excitingly innovative, as it was seen as the precursor to a series of power-stations developed from its ground-breaking blueprints.

Those "plants of the future" would be able to breed as much nuclear material as they consumed. This was, firstly, via a radioactive metals transmutation process in the heart of the reactor whereby uranium was transformed into plutonium by irradiation, then by the chemical reprocessing of the used fuel-rods and finally fabricating most of the resultant material into fresh fuel elements, ready to be re-inserted back into the reactor's core. Those plutonium-fired stations would follow on from first-generation uranium-burning plants, such as Berkeley, Chapelcross and the earliest Hunterston facility.

A short spell at Dounreay would be useful for any aspiring nuclear specialist to have on the CV, with future prospects in mind. But what would the social side of life be like up there, the young Londoner wondered?

He need not have worried because two brothers Dave and Bill Fehilly, having moved up to work in the early days of Dounreay's construction as industrial painters, had spotted a business opportunity for modern entertainment, with hundreds of Britain's brightest young brains descending on Scotland's far north to become the human ingredients of the Dounreay dream.

As Glasgow Dance Promotions they began to attract bands to Caithness, from their home-city's Alex Harvey to America's Gene Vincent to play in Wick's big wooden BB Hall, where up to 1,000 young folk could meet and be entertained.

It was there that Dr Hines met a pretty young crofter's daughter Sally Rosie, who had returned home from a civil service training college in Edinburgh to work in the Caithness County Council's education service administration.

Sally, whose John O'Groats family were said to descended from an ancestor who had crossed to the mainland from the now-uninhabited mid-Pentland Firth isle of Swona, Orkney, became his lifetime's soul-mate from their marriage in 1962 to her death in 2007.

The young couple moved to Berkeley, where Dr Hines resumed his career at CEGB.

In 1976 he moved with the family to Dorchester, where the workings of two more prototypes of thermal reactor systems were being studied in detail at the UK Atomic Energy Authority's Winfrith complex.

Then in 1985 it was back to Berkeley for the Hines family; they bought a home in Stroud in the Cotswolds.

By the late 1980s, Berkeley had exceeded its anticipated 25-year lifespan with the cessation of electricity-generating there in 1989.

But that did not mean a career-end for Dr Hines, for highly-qualified staff with day-to-day experience of safely running the power-station remained in demand for managing the decommissioning of its complex systems.

Dr Hines retired in 1994 as manager of Berkeley's engineering services operations.

Dr Hines, Sally and their growing young family felt a strong bond to Scotland's far north. In 1998, they decided to build a new cottage in a corner of his wife's family croft-land, so that they could travel back and forth at leisure. They spent many happy weeks and months together there until Sally's ill-health intervened.

Dr Hines, who had been treated for cancer over the past couple of years and appeared to be on the mend, died of a pneumonia infection. His ashes will be placed next to his wife's at Canisbay, Caithness.

Dr Hines leaves a grown-up family of three: oldest son Kevin is a surveyor, daughter Morag is a psychologist, and younger son Andrew is involved in transport logistics. Dr Hines had four grandchildren.