Suffolk landmark hits 40

Suffolk's oldest nuclear power station Sizewell A, stops generating power at the end of this year after 40 years of service. In the first of a series looking at the plant's past, present and future, PAUL GEATER meets some of the pioneers who helped to bring nuclear power to Suffolk.

By Paul Geater

Suffolk's oldest nuclear power station Sizewell A, stops generating power at the end of this year after 40 years of service. In the first of a series looking at the plant's past, present and future, PAUL GEATER meets some of the pioneers who helped to bring nuclear power to Suffolk.

EAST Anglia's coastline was identified as a suitable location for a nuclear location in the mid 1950s, but it was only at the end of the decade that the Sizewell was chosen as the perfect spot.

It was a very small fishing hamlet, with a pub, a few cottages and a house on the hill - which was demolished once construction work got underway.

Sizewell was certainly remote, ironically in the late 1950s it was still not connected to the mains electricity supply. That only came when construction work started!

The power station was built with two reactors. Between them the produce 440 megawatts of electricity - enough to supply a third of East Anglia's needs.

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Construction work on the power station started in 1961 and took three years to complete. During this time the Suffolk coastline changed forever - or at least for 150 years!

Each of Britain's first generation Magnox power stations is designed differently - the basic principle is the same but the system used to turn the heat into electricity varies. At Sizewell there are four boilers serviced by each reactor, two in each boiler housing around the main reactor building.

These convert hot gas from the reactor into steam which is transferred to the turbines to be converted into electricity. The turbine hall is separate from the reactor building - and will be dismantled as part of the decommissioning process.

The power station was largely complete by 1964, but needed many tests before it was passed safe to start operating. The first nuclear fuel was loaded in 1965 with the first electricity being generated.

Sizewell A became fully operational in 1966.

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Sizewell A is still playing a big part in supplying power to Britain - see tomorrow's Evening Star.>

IF anyone can claim to be the father of Sizewell A it is Geoff Thornhill.

He was the first station manager, overseeing its construction and the early years of operation. But his role went much further than that.

“I chose the site,” he said. “I spent about six months travelling around the coast of East Anglia looking for somewhere before settling on Sizewell.

“I was looking for somewhere that was remote, but still had reasonable access. Sizewell had a road to the pub and a caravan site here. I kept coming back here.”

When the proposed power station was announced and during construction there were few objections from residents.

He said: “They were pleased about the work coming to the area and the money that was being put into the local economy. The objections didn't start coming until later.”

At the time Mr Thornhill was also general manager of a power station in Derbyshire before telling his bosses at the British Electricity Authority it was impossible to combine both roles.

“I was driving down to Sizewell every week from Derbyshire, and I told them I couldn't carry on like that. We moved here full time and bought a home at Woodbridge because the schools there were good for the children.”

Mr Thornhill later moved to Martlesham, and although he moved on from Sizewell once the station had become fully operational he remained a well-known figure in the area.

He was a member of Suffolk Coastal council for many years.

He said: “I was here throughout the building of the power station and until 1967, by which time it was fully operational. I then worked at headquarters in London for a time, but I couldn't stand that so I begged them to send me back to a power station and I took on one in Kent.”

During the construction of the power station he had an office beside it although it was not officially part of the site. “Alcohol was banned on the site but my office wasn't officially part of the site so I had a bottle of Scotch to share with the senior people at the end of the day,” he said.

While the power station was being built, the company had to make arrangements for the thousands of temporary workers who moved to the area.

“We built an extension to the pub at Sizewell (the Vulcan) which was taken down as soon as the power station was finished and the workers went away,” he said.

TODAY Charlie Walker works in the commercial section of Sizewell A - but his connections with the area go back much further. He was born in one of the coastguard cottages that still sit near the seafront car park which attracts visitors throughout the year.

Mr Walker, who now lives in Aldeburgh, was a child when the site was chosen for a nuclear power station and has been working at Sizewell A since 1989.

He said: “It was a big thing for the area when Sizewell started. It was a very different place then - we didn't have any electricity here when I was a child.”

A former town crier of Aldeburgh, Mr Walker first started working at Sizewell for the security company when Sizewell B was being built.

“But they decided that I was too old at 39, so I switched to Sizewell A. It's a big part of the community around here.”

JOHN Bartholomew was one of the experienced power workers who came to Sizewell when the station was nearing completion.

He said: “I had originally worked on the Thames lighters but the Suez crisis meant that work wasn't too steady and I got a job in the old power station that was on the site of what is now the Millennium Dome.

“I then moved to Richborough in Kent before I was asked to come here.

“The CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board) provided us with homes - in the early days we had to live within a mile of the power station so we were nearby in an emergency.

“That requirement was soon dropped, but we've lived in the house we moved into then ever since.”

Mr Bartholomew worked at Sizewell A from 1964 to 1994. Many senior members of staff left in the early 1990s when the newly-privatised power companies offered generous early retirement packages to try to cut their wage bills.

He remains a keen supporter of nuclear power: “Of course there should be more nuclear power stations. The government should get on and build them - otherwise we'll be left like California which can't generate enough power. These anti-nuclear people should shut up!”

But he still didn't like the privatisation of the power industry of the 1990s.

“It should still be owned and run by the government - it's a national asset after all,” he said.

PAT Gable started working with construction firm Taylor Woodrow in 1961. He was a diver and helped assemble the pipes that take sea water in and out of the power station to cool the reactor.

During the winter work could be very difficult - the hard winter of 1962/3 was especially challenging.

Mr Gable, who has always lived in Aldeburgh, said the bad weather sometimes left him and his colleagues stranded.

“We were working from the platform in the sea, and if it was bad they couldn't get us off. There was a little shelter there with emergency provisions.

“We had to spend two days there just before Christmas in 1962 - they didn't get us off until Christmas Eve. That was a bit of a worry. There were six of us living in this tiny little hut and the beer nearly ran out!”

He transferred from the contractors to the power station itself, getting a job in Sizewell A as it neared completion. He carried on working there until 1993.

RON Spatchett, who lives in Leiston, came off the land to find a job in the power station: “The hours were a bit more regular, even though there was the night shift to worry about,” he said.

“At that time it was a very good job to have - I was there for 30 years until the big changes when it was all denationalised,” he said.

Neville Greenwood transferred to Sizewell after working at other power stations, including Cliff Quay in Ipswich.

He said: “It was a good place to work - it was much safer than the older coal or oil stations. People could get burned there. That never happened at Sizewell.”

When he first started in the electricity industry he earned £13/18/6 a week basic. “I had been earning a bit more working for an agricultural supplier - but that was for a seven-day week and the power station had a very good basic rate.

“I started in 1964 and stayed for 31 years. It was a good place to work.”

Planning started in 1959, construction started in 1961.

Building completed 1964, first nuclear fuel loaded 1965.

Fully operational 1966.

Planned for a 25-year life. After upgrades and improvements this was eventually extended to 40 years.

It is due to close at the end of this year when decommissioning will start.

Sizewell A is a Magnox reactor using gas in the nuclear core. Magnox is a shortened form of magnesium non-oxidising, the substance used to house the uranium fuel which powers the reactor.

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