Hinkley Nuclear Power Station and the Steart Marshes: when do human-made landscapes become ‘natural’?
By Jill Payne
When (as is increasingly likely) the construction of Hinkley C nuclear power station goes ahead at Hinkley Point in Somerset, its two new reactors, the first civil nuclear construction in the UK in around two decades, will emerge beside the Bristol Channel alongside the two decommissioned reactors of Hinkley A station, and the two still operating at Hinkley B station.
The immediate ‘reality’ of the Hinkley site’s presence is, for many people, perhaps most entrenched in its looming figurative relevance; as a place of nuclear power production, the area has attracted headlines ever since the construction of Hinkley A began to be debated in the late 1950s. However, even without the Hinkley C units (which, from a distance, should appear as just less than the height of Hinkley B’s), the existing infrastructure makes for a substantial visual presence on the coastline.
Up close, the power station buildings are intimidatingly brutalist. From a distance, they are visible on most reasonably clear days from across the Somerset Levels to the east and out on the Channel to the west as blocky silhouettes on the horizon. However, as with all infrastructure, Hinkley is simply one aspect of the wider human-made landscape in which it is situated, plus, it is not the only large-scale engineered addition to the area.
There is another substantial human-engineered change taking place just along from Hinkley, in the shape of the Steart Marshes. To some extent, it’s quid pro quo: the original construction of Hinkley involved land reclamation and stabilisation on the sea-side of the site, and the existing precinct is encased in concrete and tarmac; the Steart Marshes plan has involved the reconstruction of a swathe of the nearby peninsula as an intertidal zone of saltmarsh and freshwater wetland. Old flood defences have been breached, and an artificial watercourse has been bulldozed out of former farmland. Now, at high tide, the waters of the Parrett Estuary spill out over what are currently raw mudflats. In future, the rewilded marshes, also a more general counterbalance to the embankments of much of the surrounding coastline, will act as a natural buffer against rising sea levels. It’s also possible to highlight the potential role of the marshes in protecting Hinkley’s power transmission network; the viability of the pylon transmission route from Hinkley was one of the features of the original case made for a nuclear power station here.
Half a century after Hinkley began operations, the Hinkley compound remains resolutely distinct from its surroundings. The Steart Marshes will, however, become visibly naturalised. The tides and the seasons will do their work, and the current construction scars will be eroded by time and new plantlife.
What is interesting here is how natural-looking but nonetheless ‘engineered’ landscapes tend, especially in the longer term, to go less remarked upon. They come to be viewed, particularly as firsthand memories of original construction works fade, as rather different entities to their more overtly artificial counterparts. Do we chew over degrees, aspects and meanings of natural-ness here? Or do we take this as another reminder of the power of visual impact in shaping our responses to human-induced environmental change?