Today I had a tour of Sizewell B.
My journey took me on a pleasant drive through picturesque country lanes and down to the Suffolk coast. Sitting in the car, on what was a surprisingly sunny April day, I opened the windows and listened to distant seagulls and bird song. The site was extraordinarily quiet and calm. Although the carpark was full of cars and motorbikes, I didn’t see a single employee while I was waiting outside the visitor's centre. When inside the site, I saw only a handful of workers quietly going about their tasks – everyone I passed smiled and said hello. Sizewell radiates (excuse the pun) an odd sort of tranquillity.
Unlike Sizewell A (Magnox site), B is more aesthetically pleasing. The design, passed by the Arts Council, features blue cladding; this design is more complimentary against the sky, with the highest point (the dome) in white. Bordered by Sizewell Beach and pretty countryside, the site
itself isn’t too imposing. Thanks to the design of the plant and the beneficial coast, there are no unsightly cooling chimneys to mar the landscape.
I have been on site tours before, the last being Dungeness B – which was very informative. However, I was particularly excited about this visit to Sizewell B as it’s the UKs only pressurized water reactor. This interests me greatly because I am currently researching Three Mile Island for my forthcoming book. Three Mile Island, a site which saw Amercia’s biggest commercial nuclear crisis in 1979, is also a pressurized water reactor. Furthermore, as there are plans to potentially construct a site C – also PWR (but a European design rather than American), it seems pertinent to visit the site now to see how B works.
In all my dealings with EDF energy, I have found them to be informative and helpful. It has never been difficult to arrange a tour and indeed staff have gone out of their way to ensure I am guided by specialist staff who can answer my very specific questions – all for free. Indeed, while at Sizewell B, I was lucky enough to interview physicist Colin Tucker who spent two hours with me answering questions on everything from plant safety to the cost of uranium. When I left I was given booklets, leaflets and guides to help me with my research. Anyone who is interested in nuclear energy and nuclear plants should visit an EDF site. Regardless as to your feelings on the nuclear issue, EDF does what many sites don’t do – they invite you in.
EDF’s transparency and openness is not available across the board. Despite my consistent efforts to contact Exelon – I have been brushed off or altogether ignored with an outright refusal to answer my very basic questions relating to public interest such as questions involving the closed visitors centre and questions relating to safety and policy. Sellafield (formally Windscale) have also dodged me on numerous occasions leaving me with no choice but to contact the NDA. Windscale and Three Mile Island have two things in common: accidents and secrecy.
It is common to speak of ‘living with’ nuclear plants, in fact the BBC referred to Sizewell B as an ‘unconventional neighbour’ (Kettlewell). With security and safety concerns being at the forefront of everyone’s minds it is easier to ‘live with’ such technology if we believe understand the technology and if we believe the companies are acting transparently. Visitors centres, tours and freedom of communication go a long way to building bridges between the local community and this ‘unconventional neighbour’.
It is safe and reasonable for members of the public and researchers to visit these sites. After robust security checks, a thorough search, and a security led tour, there is no reason why permitting visitations is a problem. Refusal smacks of anxiety and uncertainty – this feeling is then filtered through local society who glance through bedroom windows at the looming plant and feel like they don’t understand it and can’t access it. It becomes a foreboding presence, a monument to secrecy and a pillar of unrest. This is not necessary and ironically is damaging the very industry that the wall of silence is trying to protect.
Not everything can be shared, of course. It would be grossly inappropriate and dangerous to allow anyone an ‘all access' tour under any circumstance for a variety of reasons. Some secrecy is naturally extremely important. Complete secrecy to the point of refusing to answer emails is unnecessary and feeds anxiety.
EDF’s visitor centres – if nothing else – tell us one thing: people want to visit! This means they are interested. School children, young adults, apprentices, students, graduates, families, business people … they all want to visit – and at EDF sites they do. By allowing visitors, companies such as EDF are encouraging the people to engage in debate, to explore the science, to have informed ideas, and even inspire young people to go into the field of science and technology.
Sites that ban tours and have closed visitor centres are not only suspiciously ignoring challenging questions by potential ‘anti-nuclear’ thinkers, they are also turning away the next generation of scientists, they are turning away members of the community who should have a say and should have an understanding, they are turning away the ability to showcase what the industry is and what it is not.
If the industry does not want people to believe in The China Syndrome, then they need to do something about it.
Kettlewell, Julianna, 'In Pictures: Living with Sizewell B,' [n.d.] <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/pop_ups/05/sci_nat_living_with_sizewell_b/html/10.stm> [accessed 13/4/15]