Tag Archives: Hinkley Point

Somerset, a ‘green and pleasant’ energy landscape?

Hinkley A

The decommissioned Hinkley Point A nuclear power station in its rural Somerset setting.
Image: Adrian Flint

With its agro-pastoral landscape of hedgerows, fields, and rolling hills and levels, often-sleepy Somerset may be the very picture of rural England – the quintessential ‘green and pleasant land’. To reinforce this, the area gained a variety of landscape and environmental designations over the course of the twentieth century, including Exmoor National Park and the Quantock, Mendip and Blackdown Hills Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).

At the same time the Somerset region is a twenty-first-century hub of energy production that faces further intense energy development, both renewable and non-renewable. It is the site of the Hinkley Point nuclear power stations A and B, and, potentially C, as well as new supersized transmitter pylons. It is also increasingly – often controversially – dotted with wind- and solar-power projects.

To what extent are the two faces of Somerset in conflict with one another? After all, Somerset has a long, proud record of historical energy provision, if its coal mining and other industrial activities are taken into account. How is it that inconsistencies between public expectations of landscape beauty and energy security have developed?

As a historian of the Universities of Bristol and Cambridge, Jill Payne has worked on the historical dichotomy between energy provision and the aesthetics of landscape and environmental protection in South West England. In this episode of the Exploring Environmental History Podcast series, Jill explores what people have come to expect in terms of energy security and how this squares with the issues involved in the desire to protect and preserve landscape and environment in ‘green and pleasant’ England.

Further reading and resources

Jill Paynes blog posts on the Power and the Water website.

Quantock Hills blog posts on the Histories of Environmental Change website.

Luckin, Bill, Questions of Power: Electricity and Environment in Inter-War Britain (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1990).

Nye, David E, American Technological Sublime (MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachussetts, 1994).

Williams-Ellis, Clough, England and the Octopus (Geoffrey Bles: London, 1928).


Music credits

Marcos Theme” by Loveshadow, available from ccMixter

Out in the rain” by offlinebouncer, available from ccMixter
Exploring environmental History podcast


This podcast was simultaneously published on the Environmental History Resources website as part of the Exploring Environmental History podcast series.

What I learned at Hinkley Point – or why a nuclear power station is not like a bicycle

By Erin Gill

Hinkley B nuclear powerstation

Hinkley B nuclear power station (Photo: Erin Gill).

People often have firm opinions about the merits – or otherwise – of nuclear power. I’m no exception. When I set out early one morning in Sept 2014 for a tour of Hinkley Point B nuclear power station in Somerset with members of the Power & Water network I felt certain that my views wouldn’t be altered by what I would see and hear. I was wrong.

I was excited about the visit to Hinkley Point – this would my first visit to an operational nuclear power station and I wanted to see whether my general understanding of how reactors work was accurate. As we drove out of Bristol toward the site I thought about the two reasons why I have long opposed nuclear power (in a rather passive way). First, there is the inherent risk of catastrophic failure. Second, there is the unresolved issue of what to do with nuclear power stations’ ongoing production of radioactive waste, including highly-radioactive spent fuel rods.

There are several other arguments against nuclear energy – including the possibility that radioactive emissions could be a factor in the increasing number of childhood cancers – but for me the two make-or-break issues have been the twin dangers of nuclear disaster and waste. I don’t think energy production needs to be so risky.

So I was unnerved to realise, after a fantastic tour of Hinkley Point B led by informative and intelligent EDF staff, that I now have a new – a third – reason to oppose nuclear energy. I had not expected my opposition to nuclear power to harden, but it had. The EDF tour was exemplary, but it couldn’t help but expose a central problem: that it takes far, far too much effort, by too many people, who must all be very, very careful all of the time – and whose actions must be triple-checked by others – to produce what is really not very much electricity for the nation.

I am not interested in presenting a detailed case about nuclear power’s lack of economic competitiveness. Others have done this very well. Instead, I simply want to express my astonishment at what I witnessed: the staggering and inescapable inefficiencies of nuclear power generation. It is such a dangerous form of electricity generation that everything takes place at a snail’s pace and every tiny action is monitored so many times…I really don’t know how people work there without going mad with the tedium. Surely, humanity no longer needs to make so much of an effort – whilst putting the health of people and the environment at so much risk – in the pursuit of such a paltry amount of power. We have better solutions now, some of which need the financial support that we are misguidedly giving to nuclear power (I’m thinking here of the construction of high-voltage direct current – HVDC – interconnector cables between the countries that border the North and Baltic Seas, so that spare electricity can be traded rather than wasted.)


A 1960s mainframe

Relying on nuclear power today is like using one of those gargantuan 1950s computers that take up half a university campus but are only capable of spitting out useful data once every few months. And building new nuclear reactors is like choosing to do this at a time when it’s possible to use a 4G smartphone at a cost of about £20/ month.

Any new method of power generation should become easier and more efficient with time, not less efficient and more risky. As Hinkley Point B nears its 50th year of operation, it seems little more than a hulking symbol on the Somerset shoreline of a technology that has failed to improve with time; a technology that limps along requiring more and more assistance with each passing year.

Of course, the new reactors at Hinkley Point C will – if they’re finally built – be somewhat more efficient, for a few years. (Until their cores develop cracks prompting nuclear safety authorities to demand lower generation rates.) But even a brand new nuclear power station cannot offer even a fraction of the efficiency gains and cost savings being achieved by photovoltaics and wind. In the past decade the power generation game has inexorably changed and nuclear no longer makes any sense as a ‘transitional’, low-carbon technology. It’s been left in the dust.

Let me offer an example of the inefficiency that nuclear power necessitates. Each of Hinkley Point B’s two reactors is served by an enormous machine used to remove spent fuel rods and replace them with fresh rods. These bespoke machines take a full eight hours to very carefully – ever so slowly – remove one set of highly-radioactive spent (ie. used-up) fuel rods and replace them. This essential process ensures the reactors are ‘fed’ with the uranium and graphite-rich rods required for the generation of electricity. The reactors can’t run without the rods.

This eight-hour operation is risky, thanks to the highly radioactive nature of the spent fuel rods, and EDF’s staff are rightly proud of the care they take to ensure everything goes smoothly. After this painstaking procedure is completed, the rods are even more carefully transported to a cooling pond for temporary storage. Eventually, each of these spent fuel rods is tenderly transported by road and rail from Somerset to Cumbria, where they are stored in facilities that are acknowledged by all parties involved in the nuclear industry as seriously inadequate. One day the UK will build an underground storage facility – in granite – to house these spent fuel rods for thousands of years, but until this ‘deep geological storage facility’ is constructed we keep them in cooling ponds at Sellafield, where they pose a risk to local environmental and human health. This is not an opinion, this is a fact.

But I don’t want to focus on the the very real safety concerns about nuclear power. I want to draw attention to how inefficient and painstaking it all is. All the effort by so many people at Hinkley Point B and for what? For an average annual rate of electricity generation below 500MW per reactor. It’s enough to make a person weep. More than half a century of nuclear power generation in the UK and this is what we get?

I was relieved to learn during the Hinkley tour that safety is not taken lightly there. In fact, every three years, all operations cease for a three full months to allow for a comprehensive check of the station’s physical state and processes, known as a statutory outage. During this period approximately 9,000 people spend time onsite as part of these checks. That is a staggering number. In addition to the hundreds of staff employed during normal operations to cosset these two reactors so that they can each generate at a rate below 500MW, there are 9,000 extra people every three years just to make sure it’s still safe. This makes no sense. Almost every new regular-sized offshore wind farm being built off the UK coast will have a capacity approaching 500MW. The turbines need maintenance and repair, but they don’t need anywhere near the numbers of people that nuclear power stations need. Larger wind farms due to be built over the next decade will produce more than double the projected 3,200MW output of Hinkley Point C. As an example, Dogger Bank offshore wind farm, to be built in phases more than 100km off Yorkshire, will have a capacity greater than 7,000MW when complete.


A bicycle brain

I could go on, but I won’t. Opinions about nuclear power have become so polarised that I doubt anything I write will ever influence the views of someone who has already decided that nuclear power is a ‘good thing’. So I’ll end by admitting that I am a cyclist and that cycling has possibly influenced my views on industrial efficiency. I cycle to and from work most days and so I ‘know’ in a visceral, physical sense what real efficiency feels like. One of the oddest and loveliest things about the bicycle is that it is the most efficient form of human-designed transportation that exists to date. It’s true, look it up. The bicycle requires a surprisingly modest exertion of somatic energy in exchange for the production of enough power to travel at a speed of between 10-15mph.

No other machine invented by humans comes close to the efficiency of the bicycle – and those of us who cycle gradually realise this. If it looks like a breeze for us, that’s because it is a breeze (except when we’re going up hill)!

As I see it, nuclear power stations are the antithesis of the bicycle. They are the equivalent of a hulking military tank inching forward, built using vast quantities of finite resources, fuelled by even more irreplaceable materials, and manned by an enormous team of people who carefully keep the whole thing from blowing up. I am grateful to every single person who works at Hinkley Point B for keeping the reactors there functioning as well as they can. But I am truly mystified as to why the UK government is so committed to building yet another inherently inefficient (and, yes, dangerous) hulk on the Somerset coast. The energy generation equivalent of the nimble bicycle is available – in the form of a number of renewable technologies that are fast becoming commoditised and whose costs are tumbling. Even better, they generate electricity without the risk of poisoning the land and/or the people.


Here’s looking at you, Wills Neck: The rare prospect from within Hinkley B

By Peter Coates

If you ascend the intimate, thickly wooded coombes that notch the northern slopes of the Quantock Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), you eventually enter an open moorland plateau which affords panoramic views that are one of the Quantocks’ best known features: nine counties, reputedly, are visible on a clear day. To the north, the view includes Hinkley Point nuclear power station, on the foreshore of the Bristol Channel. This particular prospect is dominated by the squat, twin reactor towers of Hinkley A (on which construction began in 1957, and which is currently undergoing decommissioning) and the more singular hulk of Hinkley B – the first Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor to contribute electricity to the National Grid (on which construction began in 1967). In A Portrait of Somerset (1969), local author Bryan Little hailed the original twin towers of Hinkley as ‘for all the world like the twin keep of some great Norman castle’ (p. 189).

Others regard Hinkley Point (where work preparing the ground for a third reactor, HInkley C, began in 2012) as a blemish on the local landscape. According to Natural England’s National Character Area Profile for the Quantock Hills (2013), the power station represents ‘an incongruous element of a scene otherwise ancient in character’ (p. 32), compromising the Quantocks’ viewshed, whose protection is no less important than looking after the attractions within the AONB.

Hinkley Point power station

View from the heights of the Quantocks towards the Hinkley Point power station (Photo credit: Peter Coates, September 2012)

There is also, of course – though it’s rarely considered – a view southward from Hinkley to the Quantocks. I was able to consider this view on 12 September, when I visited the plant as part of a group that included five members of the ‘Power and Water’ team, as well as various others from another AHRC project I’m involved in (‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’, http://www.hydrocitizenship.com/) (thanks, Jill, for organizing this trip). Probably the most unusual of these views is from a window in a corridor within Hinkley B. EDF’s tour guide encouraged us to gaze southward at the Quantock Hills through a window framed in a mock, gilt-edged picture frame. Though it was misty, the highest point on the Hills, Wills Neck (1,2612 feet; 384 metres) was readily detectable. Our guide even joked that we should have been walking around the lovely Quantocks instead of visiting a nuclear power plant. Unfortunately, as visitors’ electronic devices are prohibited at the Hinkley site, I was unable to capture this premium view. The view through an identical window immediately opposite on the northern side of the corridor is of the Bristol Channel, and in the far left-hand corner the plant’s cooling water intake facility can be glimpsed if you ram your hard hat hard up against the picture frame. This view reminded me of Celia, the Atlantic grey seal who was trapped in Hinkley B’s water intake chamber for five days in June 2011, though not unhappily, reported an EDF spokesperson: ‘Celia seemed in no hurry to leave as there were plenty of fish for her to eat’.[i]

Hinkley B Nuclear Power Station

Hinkley Point B viewed at low tide from the east at Stolford on Bridgwater Bay (photo: Peter Coates)


[i] ‘Seal rescued from Hinkley Point B power station water intake’, BBC News Somerset, 19 June 2011; ‘Grey seal rescued from nuclear power station’, The Guardian, 19 June 2011.

The Severn Bore, Minsterworth, Gloucestershire, 6 December 2013

Project strand 1 (Bristol) excursion: Peter Coates, Alexander Portch and Jill Payne

By Jill Payne

Severn Bore

Severn Bore near Over Bridge, Gloucestershire.
Source: Wikipedia

On 6 December, the Severn bore (the regular tidal surge that sweeps up the River Severn) made its way past Minsterworth as a relatively benign, if inexorable, swell of a few feet high. Without a crest, and moving at no more than a stately speed, its surge hauled upstream a procession of substantial logs and branches interspersed with a surprisingly limited amount of visible plastic.

As the Severn bore goes, this was unexceptional, the river acknowledging neither the previous night’s destructive storm and tidal surge to the east nor the passing of Nelson Mandela thousands of miles to the south.

It can be a capricious thing, the Severn bore. At times ‘heralded by a reverberating roar’, it has been described as a ‘huge foam-crested wave’ (The Times, 30 October, 1924) and a ‘great river monster’ (The Times, 12 April, 1927). In March 1934, spectators at Stone Bench were rewarded with a ‘wall of water…fully 12ft in height’ that flooded the river banks, but the even more noteworthy bore predicted for the following day failed to meet expectations (The Times, 19 March, 1934).

In the course of efforts to pin down the bore, it has been analysed, compared and predicted to within an inch of its life. Like bed and breakfasts, there is a rating system for bores. 6 December was predicted to be a medium or ‘two star’ affair. Next 2 February may, with the right conditions, bring a very large or ‘five star’ event. However, while science and twitter feeds do their best to provide advance knowledge, down on the river bank we are simply one more set of creatures watching to see what nature presents us with. Stand too far down the bank and we are liable to be swept off our feet to join the driftwood convoy. In September 1954, the poet and politician Lord Rufus Noel-Buxton, known for fording the Thames and the Humber, almost failed in his crossing of what he believed to be the Roman ford across the Severn between Alvington and Sheperdine when he missed his footing near the far bank just as the bore reached him (The Times, September 16, 1954).

While there is a degree of localised/specialised interest in the Severn bore, alongside a measure of media coverage, it has had a reasonably minor role in the construction of the identity of the regions that surround it. This in spite of the extent to which the Severn, estuary and river, has always been the watery jugular of the nearby parts of England and Wales; together with the upper reaches of the Bristol Channel, its influence is of course even more far-reaching.

Proponents of the much-disputed Severn Barrage envisage a further critical – but boreless – role for the Severn, harnessed and, arguably, producing as much tidal energy as several nuclear power plants.

Faced with the uncertainties of fracking, and further nuclear energy development just a few miles down the coast at Hinkley Point, we may have much to gain from making the Severn a more manageable and energy-productive creature – but (other environmental implications aside) will our farmed river compensate us for the flat-lining of yet another sliver of natural unpredictability?