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Last Updated: Friday, 11 January 2008, 18:58 GMT
Nuclear industry glows with pleasure
By David Shukman
BBC science correspondent, Sizewell B

Sizewell B (BBC)

There's a new spring in the step of Britain's nuclear community, a positive glow at the news that the government has made one of the most momentous energy decisions for a generation: that it's declared atomic power to be back in fashion.

As one of the few journalists allowed inside the Sizewell nuclear power station in Suffolk this week, I sensed the relief, even the delight, that long years as the unloved cousins of the country's electricity generators are over.

I've seen this windswept spot in gloomier times, for example five years ago when a White Paper was deliberately cool towards nuclear power.

A few years later the government's own green advisers came out against it. On those occasions the faces of Sizewell were long and drawn.

How different they are now. With the great dome of the reactor starkly white against a clear blue sky, I pass through the entrance into a distinctly happier nuclear world.

Big engineering

Even the security man seems jolly as he demands that I hand over my mobile phone and sign a fearsome document promising not to reveal any secrets of the operation (though believe me, if I'd seen a double-headed rabbit or a luminous stream of radioactive gloop or even a Homer Simpson lookalike you would have heard about it).

UK GOVERNMENT PLANS
Speed up planning process to make it easier to build plants
No public subsidies for nuclear except in emergencies
No limit to amount of electricity generated by nuclear power
New independent body to monitor decommissioning costs
Trebling of investment in wind and wave power
Store nuclear waste at 'interim' facility until suitable underground site found

At first, inside the vast compound, we are allowed to wear our normal clothes. But when our short tour begins, and we cross a thick red line painted on the ground, new attire becomes compulsory: a bright blue shopkeeper's coat, white construction helmet, heavy plastic glasses and shoes with steel caps.

I feel sheepish until I realise everyone else is wearing the same faintly ridiculous garb, even a man the nuclear industry must want to sanctify right now, the Business and Enterprise Secretary John Hutton, whose historic announcement on Thursday has transformed its future.

I watch his eyes widen at the extraordinary scale of the turbine hall, a mind-boggling tangle of giant pipes transporting steam from the reactor next door to the massive machines that are spun to generate electricity. The whole floor vibrates, the din is overwhelming, and I'm desperate to ask some questions.

Soviet spectre

First, what happens if things go wrong? Like everyone, I still find the footage of Chernobyl chilling.

And I've seen an uglier side of the nuclear industry firsthand. Ten years ago I reported from the Russian-designed nuclear station at Kozloduy in Bulgaria and winced at the bundles of worn wiring, the broken Geiger counter over the main entrance and reactors that had no containment to trap any radioactive eruption.

A European Union nuclear safety expert was there at the time and, when I asked him if he and his team wanted to eat with us that evening in the local town, he replied very sharply that there was no way he would risk staying anywhere near the place.

I've also filmed at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, named for the father of the Soviet atomic bomb, where the institute's press officer so distrusted his own scientists' assurances that he carried a personal radiation meter.

He kept checking it, and so did I. It registered normal until we stepped inside one of the research laboratories housing an experimental reactor. Then the little meter was so overwhelmed by radiation it registered zero. We kept our filming extremely short.

I mention all this to Brian Dowds, Sizewell's director. I ask him, could a Chernobyl-style accident happen here?

Our tomorrows

No, he tells me, it's a totally different system. If anything goes wrong, the control rods that govern the speed of the reactor simply drop and shut the system down.

But what if the control rods don't drop as they're meant to?

They will, he says, they're suspended by magnets and if there's a problem the power shuts off and the magnets fall. Brian speaks so matter-of-factly that it would easy to believe there are no risks at all.

I come away thinking that the new strategy of the nuclear industry is to make everything sound as mundane as possible.

Britain's new reactors will come off the shelf, possibly from France. The designs themselves are described as being almost in kit form - no surprises, nothing experimental like Britain's earlier generations of nuclear reactor.

And what about the radioactive waste? Us taxpayers are now footing the 70bn for handling the aftermath of the older nuclear power stations.

The answer? The new ones won't produce so much waste and anyway industry will cover the costs.

The problem? The industry's track record over the past 50 years has not always involved unalloyed truth, to put it mildly. Will things be different now?

I get my phone back and step outside into the brisk winter air. John Hutton talks of a new dawn for nuclear power. The fact is, it won't be his generation that knows if his decision was the right one.



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