Questions about our nuclear coastline

SOMEHOW I hadn't noticed that Father's Day was coming up. I don't really go for all these cynical inventions of the greetings card industry - Granma's Day, Uncle's Day, Cousin-Once-Removed-On-Mum's-Side Day.

Aidan Semmens

SOMEHOW I hadn't noticed that Father's Day was coming up. I don't really go for all these cynical inventions of the greetings card industry - Granma's Day, Uncle's Day, Cousin-Once-Removed-On-Mum's-Side Day.

So I was taken completely by surprise to receive the gift of a rather gorgeous book: The Living Coast, an Aerial View of Britain's Shoreline.

I was immediately absorbed in the photos taken by Adrian Warren and Dae Sasitorn from their trusty Cessna. It seems always to have been evening or early-morning sunshine wherever they flew - lovely for rich, golden tones and long, strong shadows.

I was eager to spot places I knew from this unfamiliar angle - places I have lived, places I have visited, places I have walked, sites I have photographed at ground level. And it's shown me a few spots I haven't been - yet.

Unsurprisingly, though it's presented as a journey right round the coast, the book's creators have been most drawn to the most beautiful places. So there are a great many shots of Scotland's northern and western isles, not so many of England's east coast.Which is perhaps a pity, since those there are - such as of Orfordness - are stunning.

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Flicking through the 360-odd photos one sees plenty of castles, plenty of bridges and harbours, quite a few lighthouses. But one common coastal feature is almost always missing.

In fact, I spotted just one example - tiny, distant and unremarked-upon in the text is the distinctive white dome of Sizewell B.

No sign, though, of the reactors at Bradwell, Dungeness, Hinkley, Hartlepool or Sellafield, though there are photos taken quite near all those places.

And there's no doubt about it, nuclear power plants can be quite attractive. Visually.

The Stromness ferry, from Orkney to the Scottish mainland, takes about as long as the Dover-Calais boat, but there's much more to look at.

Apart from spotting seabirds - “Is that a puffin, no it's another guillemot” - what draws most attention is the wild, craggy, passing coastline. Everyone on board wants a good look at the famous Old Man of Hoy (of which two fine aerial views naturally appear in The Living Coast).

Fewer travellers look towards the mainland. But as you approach Scotland's north coast two shining white features stand out (ignored by the book).

They are the sails of a dramatic clifftop wind-farm - and behind them the reactor dome at Dounreay.

Once landed, not many take the little road past Dounreay either. Those that do cannot miss the Keep Out signs of the Ministry of Defence.

The research and development that's taken place here for the last 54 years is as much about military matters as power generation. At least as much. Nuclear development always has been.

For some reason that fact is always to the fore whenever Iran or North Korea is in the news. Not so much when the expansion of our own nuclear industry is under discussion.

We seem to have become blas� about the whole subject. We forget that in “harnessing” atomic energy we are playing with the most powerful force humans have yet unleashed.

The government, the suave white-coated PR consultants of the energy industry - even, heaven help us, some well-meaning “green campaigners” - would have you believe they've got it all sorted now.

That clean, modern, up-to-date nuclear power is both necessary and safe. That there could never be another Windscale. Another Three-Mile Island. Another Chernobyl.

They didn't want us to know about, or notice, the report by the government's chief nuclear inspector, Mike Weightman, which considered 1,767 leaks, breakdowns or other “events” over the past seven years.

Of which around half were considered serious enough to have had “the potential to challenge a nuclear safety system”.

At Sellafield they think they've finally stopped a leak that's been going on for 50 years. Since the days it was still known as Windscale.

At Dounreay a manhole was contaminated with plutonium.

On our own coast at Sizewell - one of the sites earmarked for more nuclear development - “the wrong kind of pipe” led to a radioactive leak in 2007.

How bad was it? It depends who you ask.

One side says we were “ten hours from disaster”. The other claims it was a minor incident in an industry with “a very good safety record”.

You could fairly say of both sides: “They would say that, wouldn't they?”

But anyone who's studied the near-catastrophe at Windscale in 1957 will know how far officialdom will go to whitewash unattractive facts. (If you're interested enough, my aunt, Lorna Arnold, wrote the official history, published by Palgrave Macmillan.)

And it's a fair question how much either side - protesters or officials - really know the facts.

Do they know, for example, how far sea levels will really rise in the coming decades of global warming? Will the tide seep into Sellafield, Hartlepool, Hinkley and Heysham - or pour in?

The sea will eventually erode away the cliffs under Sizewell and Dounreay. What will happen then?

I don't know the answers to those questions. And I don't believe anyone else does either.