Its iconic white dome is one of the most famous – if controversial – landmarks on the Suffolk coast.
And today, with an exclusive tour, we can reveal what really goes on behind the scenes at one of Britain’s most important power stations.
Opened in 1995, Sizewell B – run by EDF Energy – has long faced criticism from its neighbours for the effects many believe it has on one of most beautiful parts of the country.
As well as the visual impact of a large industrial powerhouse near an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), environmentalists fear the radioactive waste it leaves behind for decades.
Despite the incredibly low statistical chances of a major nuclear accident, the fear of a devastating catastrophe – heightened by the television series Chernobyl – is also never far from many people’s minds.
Yet those on the inside, from the technical apprentices starting out in their careers right up to the station director, are unrepentant about what they see as its benefits – a reliable, cost-effective way of meeting Britain’s energy needs which provides valuable, much-needed skilled jobs and contributes millions of pounds to Suffolk’s economy.
Without it, they don’t believe Britain – let alone Suffolk – could survive. Are they right?
How does Sizewell B work?
The inner workings of a nuclear power station are notoriously complex, with its intricate technical design taking years of training to understand.
Sizewell B. Picture :Sarah Lucy Brown
Essentially though Sizewell B, the UK’s only pressurised water reactor, works by splitting uranium atoms in a process called fission to create nuclear energy.
The steam created by this intense reaction enters two massive turbines with shafts rotating at 3,000rpm at a temperature 282C, turning it into electricity.
Huge power lines transport that electricity directly to the people, powering 2.2million homes. Indeed, Sizewell B powers much of East Anglia.
For station director Paul Morton, who worked his way up through coal and gas power stations before joining Sizewell B, said: “It’s a very different technology.
“The science of making heat from nuclear fission is something completely different and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning the technology.”
What is it like inside?
When she first saw the two turbines, fourth year mechanical maintenance apprentice Beth Gant described her “amazement” at the sheer scale and technical detail of what are effectively Sizewell B’s ‘engine rooms’.
The tips of the large turbine blades travel at twice the speed of sound, creating a deafening noise and vibrations you can feel through your feet.
Apprentices at Sizewell B Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown
When she first stepped inside, Miss Gant said: “I was shocked at how big it was. It was very loud, very big and very hot.
“My first thought was: ‘How am I going to help maintain all of this?'”
The sight of the nuclear reactor itself, inside the famous white dome and above almost glowing blue water, is equally jaw-dropping.
But Miss Gant said: “When you look at the turbine it’s huge, but I was shocked at how small the reactor is itself.
“To create so much power I thought it had to be huge, but it’s really not.”
The reactor control room: Sizewell B’s ‘nerve centre’
Katie Bannister works in a room which perhaps more resembles a science fiction movie than an office.
Sitting inside a console in the centre of the space, almost as if she is controlling the Starship Enterprise, the reactor control room operator is responsible for monitoring dozens of screens and dials.you and me, what is on those screens might look like gobbledegook – but they contain crucial and sensitive technical information about the performance of the plant.
Katie Bannister is a control room engineer and reactor operator Sizewell B Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown
To you and me, what is on those screens might look like gobbledegook – but they contain crucial and sensitive technical information about the performance of the plant
A lay-person wouldn’t even know where to look, yet the three people on shift have to keep an eye on it all and spot in an instant when something doesn’t look quite right.
It is an extraordinarily challenging job which requires operators to memorise literally thousands of buttons and switches.
Yet to Miss Bannister and her colleagues, it is a rare privilege.
“Our primary job is making sure we’re maintaining a safe and reliable generation of power,” said Miss Bannister, who studied chemical engineering at university.
“We control and supervise all the activities in the power station. We do routine testing of emergency equipment, routine checks of all our key parameters and make sure temperatures are right.”
It is certainly not a job you can just start straight away.
The accredited reactor control room training programme takes 18 months, much of it in an exact carbon copy replica Sizewell B has built as training ground, and much of it supervised.
Director of Sizewell Controls in the simulator control room at Sizewell B Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown
Even once that is completed, an authorisation panel has to meet to decide who is given approval to work there full-time.
To become a shift supervisor, even more training is required.
And you can’t just walk into this highly secretive area – even the station director has to stand behind a red line and wait to be given permission to enter by the shift supervisor.
“You spend weeks in the simulator,” Miss Bannister said.
“You have to learn every single switch. Then you look at all those systems and how they hang together.
“It’s a very layered training programme.”
Reassuringly, several weeks during the training is devoted to what to do in “abnormal situations” – not that they are expected to occur, since Miss Bannister says Sizewell B is “one of the best designed power stations in the world”.
Amazing attention to detail is also given to creating the calmest working environment, with even the lights designed so that buttons and switches aren’t obscured by shadows.
The full East Anglian Daily Times article and a look behind the scenes at Sizewell B can be found here
Source: Andrew Papworth -Archant East Anglian Daily Times. 06/10/2019