Electric vision fused by experience
In the second of his series on the legacy of Britain's failed nuclear industry, Paul Brown visits the west country
Tuesday August 24, 1999
Such was the enthusiasm for nuclear power in January 1957 that the planning inquiry into building a series of experimental and potentially dangerous nuclear reactors in unspoilt Dorset countryside only lasted two days.
A bill to abolish commoners' rights passed through parliament two months later and the first turf on Thomas Hardy's Egdon Heath was cut in September the same year. The race was on to find the best type of reactor for Europe's growing energy needs.
Winfrith, unlike Harwell 10 years before, was not founded as part of the nuclear arms race, with the potential civil uses of power to generate electricity as a secondary goal. This was a genuine series of experiments to find the most efficient but also the safest way of exploiting a new golden age of generating electricity "too cheap to meter".
So fast was the five-mile perimeter fence put up that a herd of roe deer was enclosed inside - three elderly and motley specimens still remain. Outside this fence and inside the site, between the reactors, a cordon sanitaire was established in case anything went wrong.
In the event, the heath was never "blasted" by nuclear power. Parts of it were so well protected that it became a site of special scientific interest which the Dorset Wildlife Trust is about to buy for £250,000 - a home for the adder, sand lizard, orchids and other rare species.
But the dreams of the Harwell scientists were not realised. The series of reactors of vastly different designs that they built all worked, but none proved to have the twin qualities of safety and power output that their inventors had hoped for.
Forty-two years after those first heady days, the taxpayer is paying to clean up the remains of six research reactors at Winfrith, two much larger prototypes, and a whole series of buildings that were used as laboratories and still contain, or need to be checked for, unseen radiation hazards.
There are problems to sort out, like the five-mile pipeline to carry nuclear waste out to sea and the extensive on-site radioactive drainage system that needs to be lifted and disposed of.
The clean-up budget this year alone is £15m. But by the time the programme is finished, in 40 years' time, the bill could reach £600m. The larger, curiously shaped buildings of these research reactors stand as a memorial to an extraordinary age. In 1959, 12 European countries had cooperated, and each sent their own researchers, to build Dragon, a 20-megawatt high-temperature reactor.
A succession of royal visits showed the priority the government had given the site. It seems incongruous now but on July 11, 1969, the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Tony Benn, then Labour's minister for technology, visited the site and honours were bestowed on the Winfrith director, Donald Fry, in the next birthday list.
The largest of all the experiments was the prototype steam-generating heavy water reactor which ran for 23 years, and provided enough power for the national grid to keep nearby Bournemouth in electricity.
But by 1976 a lot had been learnt about nuclear power and the government decided against extending the experiment. They kept this reactor running but did not build any others of the same design. One by one, the plugs were pulled on Winfrith's collection of reactors. Finally, in 1990, the heavy water reactor was closed down. It had already run eight years longer that it had been designed to - and 700 jobs were lost.
The site director at the time, Richard Peckover, called it "a sad decision". To many others it seemed like a betrayal.
Alan Neal, the present site leader, has a completely different view. His job is to rid Winfrith of all radioactivity and change the site into a hi-tech business park.
Although this may seem like working himself out of a job, it is a job for life. At best, it will not be until 2040 that the radioactivity in the two largest reactors has decayed sufficiently for all the liabilities to have been removed and the "end game" of selling the site to have been achieved.
Much progress has been made: buildings have been cleaned up, some demol ished and others re-let. Already, commercial rents coming into the site total over £1m a year.
"Our job is to replace a nuclear site, which was the biggest employer in Dorset, with high quality, highly paid jobs, which are non-nuclear in character. To do that we have to clean up and replace buildings, while letting out the newly reclaimed land to tenants.
"In the 1980s we had 1,800 jobs here. It was run down to 1,400 and this year it has gone up to 1,500. The target is 2,000," Mr Neal said.
For some potential tenants, a nuclear site might seem to be a turn-off, but for the security conscious, Winfrith has its attractions. It is one of the few places in the country, as the property manager, John Price boasts, where workers need not lock their cars. Burglaries of computers and expensive hardware, which plague other science parks, are not a problem at Winfrith, as it is one of the most heavily policed places in Britain.
Dorset police headquarters is just outside the site. Next to it is the defence evaluation research agency, with a giant indoor water tank for testing submarine parts. This is protected by armed police.
Already two-thirds of the site is outside the nuclear zone. All the spent nuclear fuel has been taken off-site and the cooling ponds of the steam-generating reactor, where heavy water was once stored, have been drained.
Winfrith still has pride in being at the cutting edge of technology, even if this lies only in demolishing what it once so hopefully built.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 1999