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Ken Butler - Died 5 October 2017

18th October 2017

Photograph of Ken Butler - Died 5 October 2017


Born 14.05.1939 at Warrington- Died 05.10.2017 at Thurso Caithness . Physicist & Botanist ; Assistant Director at the Dounreay Nuclear Power Establishment & published botanical author.

The death of physicist J. Kenneth 'Ken' Butler at the age of 79 after a three-year battle with cancer, brings to an end a direct link with the earliest days of the Dounreay Nuclear Power Establishment, just ten miles from his home at Thurso, Scotland's only North coast town.

Ken from Warrington, then in Lancashire and now Cheshire's largest borough, spent his entire professional career at Dounreay where he became the sole school-leaver joining without formal qualifications to rise to the rank of Assistant Director at the high-tech research & development complex where almost 2,500 people were employed at peak. He spent 43 years at Dounreay, retiring as a highly-respected 'elder scientific statesman' in 2001.

He played his part as joint team-leader in creating the most 'efficient' nuclear fuel ever devised ... but the Government 'pulled the plug' on Dounreay research in 1994, stating that electricity generated from fast reactors would be too costly.

At another stage in his career, during the latter part of the Cold War, Ken was able to explain to 'sleuths' at Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (M16) the likely cause of a 'mysterious' plume of white smoke floating above the Caspian Sea, off what is now Kazakhstan, that had been pictured from a 'spy' satellite.

The second son of an aircraft factory worker, an infant Ken moved for the duration of hostilities with his family to Crewe where his father worked at the Rolls Royce factory. Early childhood memories were of an aerial 'dogfight' over the plant by RAF fighters against a Luftwaffe bomber raid, one of which damaged the plant.

During his Dounreay career, Ken gained an international reputation as a nuclear physicist whilst his lifelong love of the 'great outdoors' saw him write, in retirement, the definitive illustrated reference book to the area's wild plants that will serve as a lasting legacy. Ken collaborated with award-winning Scottish nature photographer Ken Crossan in Wild Flowers of the North Highlands of Scotland, published in 2013.

His interest in the subject had a long history, from when ... as a schoolboy ... he had taken three younger siblings on rambles in countryside around Warrington, naming the common wild flowers to them. He had lengthy service as the appointed record-keeper for Caithness and Sutherland by the Botanical Society of the British Isles.

At the local Grammar School, young Ken had shown an aptitude for physics but, like many other working-class lads of his era, Ken wanted to earn a living rather than going straight on to study at College or University.

Brought up in a 'back to back' Coronation Street-style brick-built terrace home in the town on the banks of the River Mersey, half-way between Liverpool and Manchester, Ken applied for a job at the former Royal Ordnance Factory at nearby Risley ... where inventor Mr Barnes Wallis's famous Grand Slam earthquake bomb had been assembled ... that post-war had become the key design centre for Britain's large civilian atomic power-station programme.

After interview, the eager teenager was told that there were vacancies for trainees as assistant experimental officers at far-away Dounreay, with the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) offering a visit, prior to an six-month nuclear 'induction' course that would be done locally in Risley, Cheshire.

Years later Ken recalled his first visit to the massive construction site that was to become Britain's major centre for 'fast reactor' research and development work with the reactors serviced by over 100 factories and laboratories, all within the same 'Nuclear Park', overlooking the grey waters of the Pentland Firth's Western approaches with the Orkney islands beyond.

He later stated: 'I was taken there on a raw, cold, December day in 1956, walking around the site in a sea of mud. The shell of the Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) 'dome' was half-built, there were no proper surfaced site roads and the brick walls of the laboratories block where I was going to be working were up, but there was as yet no roof on the building'.

But Ken was un-phased and he moved North ... as it turned out, permanently ... during the following June, when he found himself as part of a team getting the newly-completed D-1200 laboratory block complex 'into a working state'. The external work on the 135 feet diameter giant 'golf-ball' steel sphere to contain the World's first fast reactor designed to feed electricity into the Grid was also well on the way to completion.

Though now part of Britain's then world-leading 'atoms for peace' electricity-generating programme, accommodation for Ken and his new fellow-recruits was Spartan in the extreme; a WWII-era Nissan hut at the 'Boston Camp', where up to 3,000 new UKAEA recruits and construction workers resided on the edge of the former RN airfield, where the massive atomic complex was being built.

But two months later, things were on the up, as the teenager was transferred to Ormlie Lodge, a Thurso mansion-house that the Authority had purchased and extended as a comfortable 'home from home' hostel for single new-starts at Dounreay.

Part of that building ... long since sold-off ... now serves as the funeral parlour where a large crowd gathered to pay their last respects on Friday 13th October, and where humanist celebrant Ms Linda Smith conducted a moving and illuminating memorial service before his body was interred at the ancient Olrig Parish cemetery, close to Castletown, Caithness.

Ormlie Lodge was his home till in 1960 he wed Sheila (nee Sutherland), whom he had earlier met at a regular weekend dance at Thurso Town Hall in 1958; their honeymoon was in Aberfeldy, Perth-shire where they enjoyed hill-walking.

She too had recently moved North when her father Bill, a Caithness-born Olrig parish farm-worker's son, had been appointed at Dounreay's first local apprentice-training supervisor, from a previous post in a factory in Dumfries. This was an important role in the Far North community, as Dounreay-training under his charge went on to achieve a national reputation.

Bill, who had joined the Royal Navy as an engineer, had become something of a WWII 'celebrity'; serving on board a heavy cruiser, he had devised the detailed plan for fighting fires and flooding that had to be put into action on board after the vessel was hit by bombs from an Italian aircraft whilst on patrol in the Mediterranean Sea in 1942.

Previously, the RN had lost a capital ship which 'top brass' reckoned could have been salvaged, so new 'save the warship' plans for major RN vessels were ordered to be prepared.

This was its first real test and, by putting Bill's blueprint into operation and by steaming sternwards for over 300 miles, the badly-damaged warship was able to limp into the safe harbour at Alexandria, Egypt. The RN ordered Bill's plans to be adopted thereafter and his manual ... with a report of its success ... was circulated for adoption to the Commanders of the Royal Navy's capital ships.

After a short spell together in a residential caravan, the young Butler couple were allocated a home in Thurso's then-new Pennyland Estate, specially built for new 'atomic' recruits to Dounreay.

Ken and Sheila's longer-term home later was a ruined 18th C salmon-fishers' bothy and barrelling complex on the East side of the mouth of the prolific River Thurso that he bought from the local estate and rebuilt ... substantially at his own hands ... into a luxury home where their son Kevin and daughter Karen were brought up. He even restored a 250-year-old well in its grounds that had been used to provide fresh water to staff and for operations there when it had been a working salmon-curing station.

The Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) used tonne quantities of sodium and potassium (NaK) in liquid form as the 'coolant' to convey the intense heat from the reactor's core to the electricity-generating sets ... the first time that such alkaline metals had been used in Britain on an industrial scale.

Later, in the early 1970s, the Authority ordered c. 1,500 tonnes of sodium metal for the follow-up 1970s Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR) at Dounreay. At all costs, the liquid sodium/potassium mix had to be 'protected' from natural water-vapour in the atmosphere as it reacted 'explosively' with water, as many recall from schooldays chemistry lessons.

Ken was involved in the team devising and testing the measuring equipment for DFR's NaK coolant circuit; challenging work for a man still in his teens, but necessary as there was no previous experience in the UK in this field.

Even before DFR started operating ... fuelled by enriched uranium ... there were reports in 1955 of problems at a smaller-scale experimental 'breeder' reactor in America, which had proven less controllable than had been anticipated and where unplanned overheating had damaged a number of fuel rods.

The question that concerned British atomic chiefs asked was: 'Would DFR's fuel rods melt in the (unlikely) case of a a coolant failure there?'

They decided to play safe and had a special armoured heavy steel plate designed, constructed and installed in DFR, after tests had been done at Dounreay's 'Criticality Facility' ... colloquially known as 'The Crit' ensure that its damaged core could not 'slump' downwards 'in a critical liquefied mass of enriched uranium' in the event of a mishap, one that could have serious consequences.

Although the last-minute ... and substantial ... modifications involved putting back the starting date for the reactor 'housed' in the famous 135 feet spherical dome, this was not publicised at the time.

Butler found himself assisting in preparing the necessary 'safety case' for ensuring that the metal would sag down safely, even in a hypothetical fuel 'melt-down' situation.

His work was noticed by Dounreay's senior managers who decided that young Ken deserved to be sent at the Authority's expense to undertake a Higher National Certificate at Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen; years later the state-owned UKAEA covered the costs of his honours degree course in physics at what is now known as London City University.

UKAEA Dounreay has a continuing reputation for devising 'measuring devices' that found uses in wider industry at home and abroad.

One of the first that Ken was involved in was a type of ''rhomometer' for measuring movement of the liquid metal that had been supplied to Dounreay by Imperial Chemical Industries ... ICI ... when Glaswegian Sir Alex ... later Lord ... Fleck was the industrial chemist at its helm.

As both sodium and potassium can 'explode' or catch fire when exposed to water-vapour in the atmosphere, DFR's core was blanketed with nitrogen, a largely inert gas.

Again Butler was one of the team that worked monitoring and measuring for 18 months to successfully devise a method of getting the gas 'clean', so that it did not form 'bubbles' that led it to combine with the stainless steel pipes to produce a 'nitride' that could cause brittleness in walls of those pipes carrying the highly-radioactive liquid coolant.

This was solved and allowed DFR to be run at full power for the first time ... on this occasion, it was presented publicly as a major Dounreay success story. In the subsequent PFR, argon gas was used as a superior inert 'blanket' to surround the volatile hot liquid sodium.

Ken was popular with his colleagues and in the mid-1960s, he was elected as an office-bearer in the local branch of the main union representing scientific staff at Dounreay ... the Institute of Professional Civil Servants, IPCS.

One day in 1967 Ken told Sheila that he could be away for a couple of days, but did not tell her why.

This was at the time of a 'backdoor' effort by the US Westinghouse Corporation to recruit Dounreay staff, offering up to five times their British salaries.

Earlier the American corporation ... which was having difficulties with the US's only electricity-generating 'fast reactor' in Michigan state ... had put in an offer to buy the design blueprint for Dounreay's then-building Prototype Fast Reactor from the British Government. But the then Technology Minister Anthony Wedgewood Benn reckoned that their offer was several magnitudes too small.

The Americans 'sneakily' placed adverts in British newspapers aimed at Dounreay scientists and engineers and those employed at the UKAEA's Risley design centre, after their official bid had failed.

Mr Benn, later known as plain 'Tony', was outraged and appealed to their loyalty ... with the hint of a big pay-rise ... to stay in this country and he invited a Dounreay union representative down to Risley where he met Authority staff.

Watching the BBC 'Six O' Clock News' at home, Sheila was amazed to be seeing her husband being interviewed on national TV immediately following the meeting with Mr Benn.

Earlier in the Sixties. the Authority decided to provide a dedicated new house-size building at Dounreay to gain (non-radioactive) experience in using ... and testing ... sodium metal. This was called NOAH ... a reference to the metal's 'Na' elemental name .. and necessary with c. 1500 tonnes under order for the planned Dounreay PFR, which would 'burn' a plutonium-based fuel rather than one based on (then scarce) enriched uranium, as the original 1960s DFR had been.

As Butler rose in the ranks, he was involved in more and more aspects of Dounreay's programme, where a dry-land 'armada' of over 100 separate plants and laboratories supported the reactors.

One was 'instrumentation' of measuring devices for flowing liquids, a field in which Dounreay staff innovations excelled and where advances made there are still in daily use in adapted form in the international oil & gas industries.

Britain had embarked in its 'fast-reactor' nuclear programme in the wake of the country's biggest Post War environmental catastrophe.

'The Great Smog of London' in December, 1952 had brought the Capital to a standstill and directly caused at least 4,000 deaths, although some modern analysts suggest that as many as 12,000 may have perished in total. This was as a result of the 'pea-soup' fog, accentuated by the smoke-particles in the Capital's atmosphere in an era where power-stations, homes, offices and factories all spewed out smoke from burning coal.

The decision to site the complex at Dounreay in the Far North of Scotland was strongly influenced by then local MP Sir David Robertson.

Fast reactors were chosen as those were pollution-free and importantly did not requite imported fuels, such as oil

Less that 1% of an ingot of uranium metal can be used to fire conventional nuclear plants, such as at Scotland's Hunterston and Torness power-stations.

The attraction was that fast reactors could make use of the 99% of uranium that had been discarded to storage in the UK.

They did so by transmuting the material using radioactivity into plutonium, which promised to be as efficient as a nuclear fuel as the 1% of uranium.

But plutonium 'dulled' with use, and so its had to be removed from the reactor for reprocessing ; a complex chemical operation that had to take place in a plant behind thick concrete protective walls. Also needing to be recovered was the 'new' plutonium, created alchemy-style by the intense radiation penetrating the 'breeder banks' of depleted uranium that surrounded the core.

Re-processing was a complex task and the trick was to get the 'burn-up' as large as possible, thus minimising the 'passes' needed through the re-processing plant to obtain 'fresh' fuel that then had to be fabricated .

During the early 1980s, a team led by Ken Butler and his colleague the late Ken Swanson ... a Caithness farmer's physicist son ... managed to achieve a world-beating fuel ... clad in ceramic containers to withstand the intense heat in the reactor's core ... that achieved 20% 'burn-up' before needing to be removed for (expensive) reprocessing.

But in the end that was not enough; the coming of North Sea oil & gas had shifted Britain's energy equation with the Government's advisers stating that 'fast reactor' electricity would still be too expensive.

Another problem was in the contact-zone between the non-radioactive hot sodium metal in the 'secondary loop' circuit to superheat the steam needed to spin the generating turbines.

The late Dounreay scientist Dr Eric Voice had suggested that it was economically near-impossible to get pure enough sodium in such quantities to prevent steel welds in the 'heat exchangers' from being 'attacked'.

This problem had dogged Dounreay PFR during the 1970s and early 1980s, but had also caused major headaches at fast reactors internationally.

Ken Butler had visited the Soviet Union's Shevchenko BN-350 fast reactor at Aktau on the desert eastern shores of the (inland) Caspian Sea ... broadly equivalent in size to Dounreay's PFR ... on several occasions.

When alerted by senior staff at the Authority's London h.q. about the 'mystery' plume of smoke that was puzzling M16, Ken realised that burning sodium had caused it.

PFR design at Dounreay did not allow such smoke to escape, but he had noted a key-difference in the layout of the 'sodium-to-steam' units at Aktau. Those were smaller as much of the heat from the reactor's core there was used directly to 'desalinate' Caspian Sea water for irrigating vegetable crops, rather than for generating electricity.

Ken Butler leaves Sheila, their son Kevin a senior consultant in technical sales with a US-owned computer-security company in Berkshire and daughter Karen, who works at Dounreay. There are four grandchildren. The entire Dounreay complex is in the process of being decommissioned, now expected to be completed in the 2030s.

Bill Mowat

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