Sizewell B at 25: Inside the history of Suffolk’s nuclear power station
PUBLISHED: 07:35 14 February 2020 | UPDATED: 10:59 14 February 2020
Today marks 25 years since Sizewell B began generating power from Suffolk’s coastline - and while it has been controversial to some, few people can deny the imprint it has made.
Opened in 1995, its famous white dome - which houses the crucial reactor core - has become one of the most recognisable sights on East Anglia's coast.
Yet its impact is much more widely felt - from the thousands of builders who helped assemble it in the 1980s and 90s, to the campaigners who bitterly opposed its very creation.
While some believe its visual impact is a blot on a national beauty spot, others believe the lights would not stay on without the power it generates - and that Suffolk would be poorer without the skilled careers it has created.
So as Sizewell B celebrates a landmark anniversary and plans to extend its 40-year lifespan - alongside preparations for Sizewell C - we ask: has it been an unwelcome intrusion, or a force for good?
A great vision - faced by formidable opposition: 1980-1987
Sizewell has never been a stranger to nuclear power. It has housed a power station a stone's throw away from the beach since 1967, when the Sizewell A magnox plant was opened.
So when the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) was looking to build more nuclear power stations across the UK to provide for the country's growing energy needs, next-door seemed an obvious location.
Even today, visitors are in awe of the incredible scientific technology, where uranium atoms are split in a process called fission to generate energy.
For 1980s Britain, which still relied heavily on coal and gas, it seemed futuristic - especially as Sizewell B was, and still is, the UK's only pressurised water reactor (PWR).
Yet despite the powerful ambition, it was not all plain sailing.
With risks of a catastrophic accident a major concern, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) had to carry out a detailed safety review prior to construction.
A forensic three-year public inquiry followed, with opponents raising fears about the impact a second station would have on the coast.
The Shut Down Sizewell Campaign was founded by passionate opponent Charles Barnett, while Suffolk County Council and Suffolk Coastal District Council also both raised objections to the scheme.
In the end, the CEGB won the day - but it was clearly not an easy decision for inquiry chairman Sir Frank Layfield.
With a reputation for being rigorous investigator, his thorough examination took more than 16million words of evidence - a record at the time - and sat for 340 days, mainly at Snape Maltings.
His final report, fully completed by January 13 1987, stretched to 3,000 pages and marked the end of what at the time was the longest-lasting and most expensive British public inquiry.
Paul Morton, station manager at Sizewell B until January and now project lead at Sizewell C, concedes that one of the drawbacks of nuclear power stations is that they are "expensive to build" and take a long time, because of the sheer scale and technical detail involved.
The advanced technology and size of the station - with two massive turbines at its heart, containing shafts rotating at 3,000rpm at a temperature 282C - meant Sizewell B's construction took eight years.
Photos during the period demonstrate the mind-boggling task which faced the thousands of workers recruited during construction.
Historic pictures show parts of the crucial reactor core, built to withstand the force of an aeroplane crash, assembled almost like a Lego set - only notoriously more complicated.
Niki Rousseau, who joined as a clerical assistant in August 1987, described the reams of documents detailing "every single little piece that was being built" - essential in a time before the internet and email had even been invented.
Neighbours who opposed Sizewell B, such as Felice Lampard, said the building work "not only caused disruption but was next-door to a renowned bird sanctuary".
Mrs Lampard, who lived in Theberton at the time of construction but now lives in Aldeburgh, claimed that the "noise was intolerable" and that surrounding roads were inadequate for the traffic to and from the site.
Yet for those involved in the building project such as Kim Mann, it was an "exciting" time.
Mrs Mann, who today is Sizewell B's contractor manager, said she "only applied for the job half-heartedly" in the station's planning department.
However she was soon swept up in what became a mission to get the station built.
"It seemed really exciting to me," she said.
"I grew up in Leiston and Sizewell A has always been part of the community.
"It was a new evolution of power and something exciting happening on my doorstep that was offering a lot of opportunities.
"It felt then like we were getting involved in something quite special."
Adam Anderson, acting plant manager at Sizewell B, similarly described a "buzz that ran through the whole site" as builders and engineers focused resolutely on one goal - getting the station built.
"You could visibly see progress as you were walking round the building site - the key milestones, such as the completion of the concrete dome," said Mr Anderson.
First power generated: February 14, 1995
To those who started work on the long haul to build Sizewell B in 1987, the end had seemed a long way off.
So Mrs Mann and others remember a "surreal" feeling when buildings they had worked on for nearly a decade finally became a reality.
She and others described a collective feeling of "we did it" when power as first generated on February 14 1995, with Adam Anderson saying: "The pride across the station was really strong."
The "big event" of switching on the power at Sizewell B for the first time and synchronising electricity to the National Grid fell to Jon Yates - who is today station manager, the overall person in charge.
And while you might think that sending power to thousands of homes requires a complex series of processes, it was nothing more than a simple turn of a switch that began a new era in Suffolk's history.
What impact has Sizewell B had on the environment?
As arguments over nuclear expansion at Sizewell rumble on, so do questions about how to provide Britain's electricity in the years ahead as coal and gas reserves deplete.
The two debates are perhaps at the crux of the tension over Sizewell B - providing the power the country needs, while convincing its surrounding community it is the right way to do it.
To Jon Yates, the energy benefits Sizewell has brought cannot be ignored.
Sizewell B's acting station manager says the power station has been a "significant contributor to the target for non-carbon electricity generation".
It has sent 217.9 Trillion Watt Hours (TWh) of power to people's homes in the region over 25 years, enough to provide for 57.7million homes.
Had the station not been given the go-ahead in the 1980s, Mr Yates believes: "We would have had to have had the energy from somewhere."
Some campaigners dispute the notion that nuclear is carbon-free, arguing that the construction of site on the cooling water discharged during operation damage the environment rather than provide clean energy.
But Mr Yates says without it, coal-fired power stations would have been used for longer, burning more preciously rare natural gas.
Opponents also argue renewable energy from wind farms is a better way of providing electricity.
However Mr Yates said that for much of Sizewell B's life, such technology simply hasn't been there.
He argued that while renewables play an important role, they do not get close to meeting the demands of a growing population.
"We would have struggled to provide the energy needed," said Mr Yates. "We would have had to replicate it with something more dirty."
What effect has Sizewell B had on the economy?
While generating electricity is their main job, Sizewell B's longest-serving employees believe it is just one of the benefits the plant has brought to Suffolk.
Perhaps even more important and life-changing are the high-skilled career options Sizewell B has given hundreds of people.
You only have to look at the careers of people like Adam Anderson, Kim Mann, Niki Rousseau, Jon Yates and countless others to see there is potential for those starting at the bottom to work their way up.
It starts with what Mrs Mann describes as "extensive mentoring" of young people, where workers will go into nearby schools to talk to them about careers in nuclear.
For those who decide a career at Sizewell is for them, there are a variety of apprenticeships on offer - from £11,200 a year technical apprenticeships which require five GCSEs, to nuclear and civil engineering degree courses.
The apprenticeships not only give new recruits the technical skills to climb the ladder, but even classroom-based sessions on crucial life skills such as working in teams.
At a time when many say opportunities for young people in rural areas are limited, Sizewell B prides itself on offering skilled jobs on Suffolk's doorstep which are open to all - even people with limited qualifications.
"At the time, it was a big opportunity for me," said Mrs Mann of joining Sizewell B 30 years ago.
"It is a really big organisation and there are lots of things people can go into.
"I'm probably quite rare that I've worked for the same employer for 30 years, although I've had a number of different roles.
"It's a massive opportunity for people."
However the Shut Down Sizewell Campaign, which is still calling for the B station to be closed, said: "People who work there probably think it is marvellous - but jobs aren't everything."
What does the community think of the power station?
Sizewell B takes great pride in its role in the community, with acting plant manager Adam Anderson saying: "If you look at the spend we put through the local economy, there's a fantastic amount of cash we put back into the local area."
EDF Energy says that Sizewell B contributes about £20million a year to the area, which can rise to £40million in a year when there is an outage - when the plant stops generating power to allow for round-the-clock maintenance.
EDF and the CEGB beforehand have also made great efforts to invest in the community over the years, with thousands of pounds donated to good causes in the community.
For example, when last year's school transport crisis left many children unsure how they would get to school, EDF stepped in to buy Alde Valley Academy a new bus.
However a spokesman for the Shut Down Sizewell Campaign said no-one could get away from the famous white dome's impact on the Suffolk landscape, which the group described as a "gigantic golf ball".
Long-standing opponent Felice Lampard added: "It's appalling.
"It's a form of land pollution in an area of outstanding natural beauty.
"The trade in this part of the county is tourism. People come here to enjoy the marshes and beaches.
"You can't see anywhere up the coast here that isn't damaged by it."
Opponents also claim EDF Energy has not always listened to the concerns of the community.
However community liaison manager Niki Rousseau pointed to the stakeholder groups which EDF Energy runs with the community, to update people about activities on the site.
"I think it's just about keeping people informed and letting them know the facts of what we're trying to do," she said.
"We take on board their comments and listen - there have been many examples of that."
What has Sizewell B's safety record been like?
The devastating accident at Chernobyl in 1986, a year before building began at Sizewell, was a stark reminder of the potential dangers a nuclear power station.
Sizewell B has never suffered a serious or minor nuclear accident, which acting station manager Jon Yates puts down to staff "always looking to do things more safely".
Safety is certainly a constant watchword wherever you go at Sizewell - in every corridor and workshop, there are signs warning you to watch where you're going, potential hazards and what you can and can't carry.
The most junior staff are allowed - and indeed encouraged - to challenge their superiors on anything related to safety, from whether they are wearing the correct protective clothing to if their working methods are the safest.
Electrical technician Gary Jackman has described how staff are encouraged to think through the potential consequences of their work before turning a single spanner.
We all know how easy it is to forget to switch off a light at home, or press the wrong button on an iPad - yet in a nuclear power station, flicking the wrong switch could have terrible consequences.
Mr Yates claims the introduction of human performance technology at Sizewell, which focuses on eliminating mistakes at all levels, has vastly cut down the chances of even the easiest to make errors.
In a world where email and mobile phones have increased the pace of life, Sizewell B has taken the opposite approach - with Mr Yates saying: "It is about making people pause."
He describes how engineers and technicians will "touch talk" - resting their finger on the switch and saying out loud what they are about to do, making themselves stop and think before pressing something by accident.
"There is nothing more important than getting it right," he said. "It is about taking time to get it right first time, every time."
When asked last year if he could put a figure on the likelihood of a nuclear accident at Sizewell B, then station director Paul Morton said: "It's just not going to happen.
"With the levels of design, attention to detail, the way in which the plant is operated and the level of legislation, it's not going to happen."
What does the future hold?
Just as society has changed dramatically during Sizewell B's lifespan, so has life at the power station itself.
The reams of paper Niki Rousseau described in 1989, documenting the site's thousands of components, have been replaced by ever more complex IT systems.
The male-dominated environment of the UK's nuclear industry as a whole has been continuously broken down, to the point today where women hold some of the most senior roles at Sizewell B.
As the person in charges of negotiating Sizewell's financial contracts, which can range of hundreds of pounds to millions, Kim Mann has one of biggest responsibilities on the site.
And one of its rising stars is Katie Bannister, an operator in the all-important reactor control room who has to monitor hundreds of dials on the plant's performance - and spot in an instant when something looks wrong.
However whatever the changes and challenges ahead, acting station manager Jon Yates is clear: "We're here for the long haul."
Initially built with a lifespan of 40 years, staff are currently embarking on the laborious process of evaluating each of the site's components - with a view to extending the whole station's life until 2055.
Some people might have thought that with the planned building of Sizewell C and the growth of renewable technologies, the B station might no longer be needed.
Mr Yates concedes that: "As we get more renewables, we need to operate in a different way."
But he and others do not see that renewables can, at least yet, provide the sheer volumes of energy needed when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining.
As Kim Mann says: "We're more than painfully aware of climate change and I think nuclear plays an important part of the energy mix."
And Adam Anderson perhaps sums up Sizewell B's challenge for the next 25 years best of all, when he says: "Nuclear power doesn't come small.
"There's always going to be a healthy challenge about the rights and wrong of nuclear power.
"However I see that as our responsibility to make sure that we're seen as a responsible operator to maintain that trust within the community."
■ What are your memories of Sizewell B? Write, giving your full contact details, here.
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