The chance to see round the nuclear reactor plant at Dungeness was quickly taken up by 20 members of the Rother Environmental Group. Subjected to advance personal security vetting, we arrived on site last Friday August 3 to be briefed and checked out again, and given protective vests, hard hats and goggles, before passing through security barriers and airport-style body scanners. Security is clearly the name of the game, and this extends to every operational procedure at the plant.
The Visitors’ Centre told the story of nuclear fission technology at all levels of comprehension, with interactive exhibits catering for the 7,500 visitors who come each year.
Walking round with our personable and very knowledgeable guide, we could not fail to be impressed by the massive turbine hall, housing giant blades revolving 50 times per second. Whisked by elevator to the top of the reactor tower, we were amazed by the light and airy structure as we looked down at the top of the reactor floor. Beneath that, two separate assemblies of uranium charged rods were generating vast amount of nuclear energy in absolute silence.
Outside, we inspected the lagoon, taking in and returning sea water to cool the plant. Even the normally raucous seagulls were quiet, satiated by their ample diet of fish, and accentuating the pervasive atmosphere of calm control over unimaginable forces of energy.
We learnt that the rationale for granting extension of the plant’s working life to 2028 was based in part on the excellent condition of thousands of small pieces of graphite, surrounding the nuclear rods and controlling the process of fission. We heard too about the varying categories of nuclear waste, and the still developing technology for disposal of the comparatively small quantities of higher toxicity material. It was claimed that the total amount produced by the UK nuclear industry could be accommodated within three London buses.
Not all visitors would have their fears of nuclear energy totally dissipated. However, with the impending closure of all UK coal-fired plants, there can be no doubt about the valuable contribution being made by the nuclear industry to our power and energy requirements in the UK over at least the next decade.
As to the shape of the future, the new plant being built by EDF at Hinkley Point C may be the last of its kind, if the new technology of small and medium scale reactors (SMRs) can be brought to commercial viability. There is plenty of room for several of these at Dungeness, within the existing boundary. Beyond and outside, the owner operators, EDF, are strongly committed to maintaining the unique environmental value of one of Europe’s largest shingle expanses and Britain’s only desert.
Photos: Kenneth Bird