Torness opens: Day inside nuclear power plant

The maintenance workshop inside Torness. Picture: Esme Allen
The maintenance workshop inside Torness. Picture: Esme Allen
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IT’S a white, concrete block, stuck on an attractive coastal backdrop surrounded by rolling fields.

As I approached this apparent blot on the landscape for one of the first visitor tours of Torness Nuclear Power Station, I couldn’t help think of the three-eyed fish from one Simpsons episode.

The cartoon series, where Homer munches on pink dougnuts while in charge of safety at the Springfield equivalent, and dark thriller The China Syndrome have much to answer for in terms of public perceptions of nuclear power stations.

Meanwhile, the disasters of Chernobyl, and more recently Japan, serve as permanent reminders of the enormity of what can go wrong.

But the reality is this power plant, situated just five miles from Dunbar, celebrated 25 years of generating electricity on Saturday. Its proponents maintain it is an economical, safe and clean form of energy – something people now have a chance to see for themselves.

For more than a decade, the station has been closed off to the public amid heightened security concerns following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America.

After getting the green light to once again open its doors to the public, it is now offering tours of the site.

Security is certainly not taken lightly – the industry has its own branch of armed police – and booking a place involves handing over passport details and waiting for between two weeks and a month for clearance.

And it doesn’t stop there. After being greeted by our tour guide Lauren Auld, 29, she cheerily leads her group from the newly-built visitor centre for a final round of security checks for any forbidden items, including cameras, mobile phones and alcohol.

Then it’s on to the main entrance, where visitor pass numbers need to be punched into a pin machine, and passes swiped, before the impenetrable metal turn-style doors will allow anyone to pass.

Once inside, the extreme approach to safety continues, with pedestrians having to stick to clearly marked green walkways before they get into the heart of the building.

All of this serves as a reminder of just how powerful and dangerous the work of the station is – although that doesn’t seem to be foremost in most visitors’ minds.

“Now has anyone seen The Simpsons?” gets an excited response from schoolchildren starting the tour.

“I think they are very disappointed when they go in that there’s not someone there eating pink doughnuts,” says Lauren.

Of course, unlike accident-prone Homer Simpson, staff at Torness have an impeccable safety record. The EDF plant has gone 1591 days without a lost time incident – an injury resulting in someone being unable to work.

At the first stop on the tour that potential danger is again highlighted, thanks to a diagram explaining in a manner even Homer would understand, how the nuclear plant works.

“It’s very simple if you think about it like a boiling kettle,” says Lauren.

Here, much the same as a fossil-fuelled power plant, water is turned into steam, which in turn drives turbine generators to produce electricity. The difference between the two is the source of heat to generate the steam. In the two reactors at Torness, the 660 degree heat is created by splitting uranium atoms in a process called fission.

A fuel pellet, not much longer than a fingernail, creates the equivalent energy to a tonne of coal. And with 5.5 
million pellets in each reactor, it starts to become apparent how this one power station can produce 30 per cent of Scotland’s electricity each year.

Of course, the science is a far cry from those mutated cartoon fish. Although the station has not been without it’s own weird incidents, most memorably when hordes of jellyfish caused the plant to shut down after they clogged its cooling filters.

And it turns out the plant is something of a magnet for sea life.

“Sea water is brought in to cool down all the condensers and when it goes out to sea it’s a few degrees warmer which attracts a lot of fish,” she explains. “Sea bass is really good off coast and you’ll often see fishing boats in the area.”

The tour then moves on to the maintenance room where about 100 people, including the company’s many apprentices, toil away on anything that might need a spot of work.

The scrupulous maintenance has led to reactor one being the best performing in the UK, having reached a milestone of 548 days running continuously without a hitch.

A row of metal security gates prevent any unauthorised entries to the radiation control area, where staff use their Electronic Personal Dosimetres (EPDs) to record their radiation levels upon entering, and, more importantly, leaving.

We stand and watch people punching in their codes as Lauren explains how the machines gauge if there is any dose of radiation, like dust on their protective clothing.

“It would be a case of stripping down and sending the clothing to active laundry for treatment and putting fresh ones on before they’d be allowed out. Most of the time the reading is zero and the dose we allow is half the national level. But to put it into perspective, airline pilots have higher readings on their EPDs.”

Rows of wooden seating, attached to the wall of another long corridor are called “muster points,” where people would gather in times of an emergency. She stops here to tell us how safety drills are carried out weekly, with the alarms being heard for a considerable distance, providing residents reassurance they are certainly well practised.

And finally we reach the heart of the station, the imposing reactor hall. We walk through some alarmed red doors and into the control room. No press cameras are allowed into the viewing space of what resembles something out of the Starship Enterprise.

Built in the 1980s, its various-coloured flashing lights, buttons, diagrams and joysticks on oversized panels give it a retro feel. As we stand watching the handful of people quietly going about their work, Lauren adds: “The kids often ask ‘where’s the big red button?’ Truth is, there isn’t one.”

Driving away from the tour, it all seems a far cry from the fictional world of Springfield – something I find myself very reassured by.

CONTROVERSIAL BEGINNING FOR THE STATION

TORNESS Nuclear Power Station was the last of the United Kingdom’s second generation nuclear power plants to be commissioned.

Construction began in 1980 for the then South of Scotland Electricity Board (SSEB) and it was commissioned in 1988.

The SSEB sought approval of the Secretary of State for Scotland in 1973 for Torness as a site for a nuclear power station. A public exhibition was held at Dunbar in February 1974 to explain the board’s proposals, and in June 1974, there was a public inquiry.

In May 1978, 4000 people marched from Dunbar to occupy the Torness site, but consent was given for construction of the advanced gas-cooled reactor station.

It was constructed by the National Nuclear Corporation and started generating electricity in 1988.

Since then it has generated 200 terawatts of low carbon power, employing more than 650 people from the local area.