Sizewell A and B
Sizewell & the nuclear future
By Andrew Woodger
Following its Energy Review, in January 2008 the government made the formal decision to allow a new generation of nuclear power stations to be built in Britain. It meant British Energy could apply to build Sizewell C.
The old Sizewell A magnox nuclear power station, and most of its sister plants (including Bradwell in Essex), are in the process of being decommissioned. Sizewell B (a pressurised water reactor plant) started generating electricity in 1995, and it'll end its life in 2035.
Nuclear plants generate 20% of the UK's electricity. The government is deciding whether we should build more power stations here or increase our reliance on imported power.
The Department of Trade & Industry's Energy Review began in November 2005 and it's concluded that Britain needs a mix of power plants, including nuclear, as well as a commitment to alternative and more efficient forms of energy.
In a Commons statement on the Energy Review in July 2006, industry secretary Alistair Darling said: "The government has concluded that new nuclear power stations could make a significant contribution to meeting our energy policy goals.
"It would be for the private sector to initiate, fund, construct and operate new nuclear plants and cover the costs of decommissioning and their full share of long term waste management costs."
Sizewell manager Mark Gorry (right)
"Nuclear does mean we can generate electricity without carbon emissions. It does provide a consistency of energy which wind power cannot."
The threat to gas supplies posed by Russia and the Ukraine's spat in 2006 seemed to work in the British nuclear industry's favour - how reliant can we be on other countries when we're already becoming a net importer of oil and gas?
Speaking in 2006, Sizewell B's former station director Mark Gorry believes nuclear is the only option: "The waste is safe. All the spent uranium oxide used at this site has been kept on site in water pools. They're about a third full, but political decisions need to be made about storing waste off-site in deep, underground rock caverns in metal casks. Finland has created its storage facilities, and I wouldn't have any worries about building one here.
"Technically, we're able to deal with it. If you stand next to our pool here, you'll be exposed to less radiation than you would on a plane flight. It's a matter of finding a suitable site which is acceptable to everyone."
As a result of the government's 2008 decision, British Energy applied to build another plant on the Suffolk coast.
The anti-nuclear argument
However, for the anti-nuclear lobby the case isn't that clear-cut. Liam Carroll of Bungay is a member of the 'New Nuclear? No Thanks!' lobby group: "The problem of nuclear waste is that no-one in the history of the industry has ever got rid of it. The fact that it lasts for hundreds of thousands of years means we can't predict what effect putting it in the ground will have.
"At what point does the containment break down and the waste enter the water supply? If it was that easy, why isn't Sizewell putting it in the ground already? Their water pools need constant cooling because, and there is scientific dispute about this, the waste could heat up and evaporate. If the fuel rods got hot enough, or the pool drained for whatever reason and came into contact with the air, we could have a meltdown and something akin to Chernobyl.
"The safety risks may be small, but if something goes wrong, it goes badly wrong."
Ness Point, Lowestoft
Back at Sizewell B, Mark Gorry says nuclear is still the most viable way of generating electricity: "In terms of the mix of energy, the base should be nuclear because it has very little greenhouse gas emissions. France's electricity is 80% nuclear and they have 58 reactors producing some of the cheapest power in Europe, which we import."
There's also the history of worldwide nuclear accidents, a possible terrorist threat and the taxpayer-subsidised cost of nuclear energy. 2006 is the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Mark Gorry says huge lessons were learnt: "I don't believe anything like that would happen again.
"Technical lessons have been learnt and advances have been made. Sizewell B is a very safe plant - we put huge effort into safety. I wouldn't stand here and say we'll never have a problem, because that would be complacent, but I am confident."
Aside from individuals cutting down on power use, the government says it's committed to cutting UK carbon dioxide emissions by 60% by 2050 with 'progress' by 2020. Launching the Energy Review, the Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks says we are all part of the problem: "I am determined that we make the connection between this review and the energy we consume in our everyday lives.
"30% of energy is used in our homes and the plasma TV generation is increasingly packing those homes with consumer electronics, domestic appliances and gadgets, often left needlessly on standby. This squanders more than £740m worth of energy and results in over four million tonnes of excess carbon dioxide emissions every year, significantly contributing to climate change."
The anti-nuclear lobby insists the whole focus is still too far away from energy conservation. Liam Carroll says we're going to have to change the way we live: "Wind farms will become cheaper and we're lagging behind other European countries in the UK.
"Most UK electricity gas or coal-fired power stations waste 55-70% of the heat produced - it goes up the chimneys. Scandanavia's taken the lead in capturing this waste to heat houses - even whole estates.
"Study after study shows this is the way forward. Woking Borough Council in Surrey has shown that this can be done. The town is almost totally self-sufficient by using photovoltaics (solar panels) and other efficiency measures and Ken Livingstone has said he wants to follow their lead in London.
"Energy companies are going to develop advice services which will be able to come into our homes and show us where to make savings. Smart meters will be able to turn the lights, freezer or fridge off, because they don't need to be running all the time."
It's thought Sizewell C would be built to take advantage of the existing skills-base and because the local community is used to having a nuclear power plant as a neighbour.
An Ipswich-based consultancy company 2C has a website looking to get local views properly represented (use the weblink on the right).
Whether pollution can be reduced, energy-use cut and energy-efficiency improved without a big voluntary or involuntary change in our lifestyles remains to be seen.
Mark Gorry has moved on to work at British Energy's Heysham 1 nuclear power station in Lancashire. Since he left, Brian Dowds took over as station director at Sizewell B.
In April 2009, the government included Sizewell on a list of 11 sites which it granted initial approval for. The government wants the first new reactors to be operational by 2018.
last updated: 23/07/2009 at 11:45
Have Your Say
Is Sizewell C the only realistic answer?
Bill Hyde, DFH, C. Eng, FIET, retired Elec Supply
MR I R RICHES
MR I R RICHES