Nuclear reaction

It's probably the most controversial site in Suffolk - but it provides enough power to keep all the lights on in Suffolk and Norfolk during these dark winter nights.

By Paul Geater

It's probably the most controversial site in Suffolk - but it provides enough power to keep all the lights on in Suffolk and Norfolk during these dark winter nights. PAUL GEATER got through the security to find out what really goes on at Sizewell B power station on the Suffolk coast.

IT'S been generating electricity for the National Grid for nearly 13 years now, but Sizewell B power station remains at the cutting edge of technology.

You can't ignore the safety and security culture that surrounds the plant as you approach it - we were told to bring our passports to get on to the site and as soon as you turn off the public road at the Vulcan pub there are warnings that you are entering a nuclear site.

After detailed security checks on the way in - I had to leave my mobile phone and digital camera in a locker at the lodge - we finally made it on to the nuclear site itself.

Sizewell B has been generating power since early 1995 but there have been many changes over the years.

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There used to be a visitor centre serving which gave people the chance to learn about nuclear power and the Suffolk coast - as well as offering tours of the power station itself.

That fell victim to increased security concerns after the events of 2001.

Now the power station exists for one purpose - generating electricity for the country. And it is a purpose that station director Brian Dowds expects it to continue to fulfil for many more decades.

Sizewell B has a design life of 40 years - but Mr Dowds felt that was a conservative estimate.

He said: “With proper maintenance there is no reason why Sizewell B should not continue in operation for 60 years. It is a very modern piece of equipment.”

The power station was one of the most advanced in the world when it started generating in March 1995, and remains at the cutting edge of technology.

It may be the only pressurised water reactor (PWR)power station in Britain, but it is a technology that is in use around the world.

Mr Dowds' job before coming to Sizewell B last year was as station manager at a PWR in Cape Town in South Africa.

He said: “There are 400 PWRs around the world, and Sizewell B is one of the very best - it is a joy to work with compared with the station I came from in South Africa.”

Sizewell B is owned and operated by British Energy, a public limited company which owns all the second-generation nuclear power stations in Britain that operate from Dungeness in Kent to Hunterston and Torness in Scotland.

British Energy employs 500 staff at Sizewell B and a further 200 are indirectly employed at the site.

Most work during the day but it is a 24-hour operation, and at midnight on any day there are 30 people employed running the station and a further 10 security staff at work.

Security is tight to get on to the site - but once you are inside there is no let up to the security and safety message. Mr Dowds gave us a guided tour of the heart of the power station - including the ponds where used fuel rods are stored.

This had to be booked in advance with the staff at that department. We had to wear special badges to ensure we were not exposed to any radiation and we had to be checked for radioactive contamination as we left the building.

I managed to set off the alarm by not standing properly in the testing bay - a heart-stopping moment during the tour but once I went in again there was no problem.

We saw that security is an important feature of work on the site, but it is something that the staff quickly learn to deal with. “It is tight for visitors, but all our security details are contained on our badges - we just have to swipe them as we enter or leave the site,” said Mr Dowds.

On the site there are no signs pointing to different buildings, because people either know where they are going or have to be accompanied by someone who knows the way. Mr Dowds said: “That is the way it should be.”

Security breaches by Greenpeace protestors over recent years had caused headaches for Sizewell B managers, but new laws made it easier to deal with these incidents.

Mr Dowds said: “Trespassing on a nuclear licenced site is now an offence in its own right. In the past we had to wait until they did some damage, but now anyone can be arrested as soon as they arrive of the site.

“You have to remember this plant was designed at a time when there were very serious terrorist threats.

They may have been a different form of terrorism, but it was a very real threat at the time.”

The ponds contain all the used fuel that has been through the reactor at Sizewell B since it was fired up in 1995.

“As you can see, it only takes up a small amount of the room - there is enough room here to store the fuel from 25 years of operation,” Mr Dowds said.

Unlike the neighbouring Sizewell A site, the used fuel is not sent away to Sellafield for reprocessing - it is stored on the site until a long-term solution to its disposal is decided upon.

The power station has to be shut down every 18 months to allow fuel to be changed and maintenance to be carried out on the reactor. This can take several weeks and has to be carefully planned to ensure other power plants are able to make up for the lost power.

The last outage lasted for 49 days because major work had to be undertaken - next time officials hope to complete the work in just 25 days. It is scheduled for spring next year - work is carried out then or in the autumn because demand for electricity is not as great as it is in the heart of winter or summer.

“When we are down the number of people working here goes up dramatically as specialists come in. The number of people working here will go up to 2,000. That is very good news for hotels, bed and breakfasts, and campsites in the area,” said Mr Dowds.

The wage bill at Sizewell B is about £30million a year - most of which goes back into the Suffolk economy. Mr Dowds said: “Most of the people who work here live within about 20 miles, as far away as Ipswich or Lowestoft but a lot in other towns in the area.

“You tend to find people from Sizewell A live in Leiston, our workforce are a bit further out,” he added.

There are strong links with the community and the schools in the area - and jobs at the power station are sought-after. You find people spend their entire working life here - it is a job for life and there are not many of them around these days.

“We take on about five apprentices a year from the high school - but there are not that many vacancies because there is not much of a staff turnover,” he said.

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What do you think about Sizewell B in our midst? Write to Your Letters, The Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk.

SIZEWELL B is the only 'pressurised water reactor' power station in the country . . . at present.

The government has been reviewing the future of nuclear power and is expected to make an announcement next year about whether it will allow any further plants to be built.

Most observers expect nuclear power to get the green light, and that could spark a scramble to build new stations across the country.

British Energy is keen to be involved in building any new nuclear power stations, probably in partnership with another company. The French government-owned EDF Energy has already said it would like to help build a new generation of nuclear plants - but any new developments will probably have to include British Energy because that company already owns the land on which the stations would probably be built.

There were plans drawn up for Sizewell C back in 1990. That would have been twice the size of Sizewell B. The land set aside for it is still owned by British Energy.

Mr Dowds said: “At present the thinking is that if there is a go ahead, Sizewell and Hinkley Point (in Somerset) will be at the top of the list for new power stations.”

Sea defences had been strengthened to ensure there was no danger from the sea flooding the sites - there was little danger of flooding during this month's tidal surges.

The public inquiry into Sizewell B lasted from 1983-85.

It was given approval by the government in 1987.

Work began on the building in 1988 and it was completed in 1995.

It is due to be decommissioned in 2035 - but could stay in production until 2055.

It produces 12 megawatts of power - enough to power the whole of East Anglia.

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