The Guardian
From nuclear dream to rubbish tip

Paul Brown
Monday August 23, 1999

When Margaret Thatcher sanctioned the building of the Sizewell B pressurised water reactor in Suffolk in the 1980s, she turned her back on 50 years of nuclear research and development into British reactor designs.

It began with a race to keep Britain in the superpower league by making the UK the third nuclear weapons state after the US and Russia. Originally reactors were designed only to make material for nuclear weapons - then scientists dreamed of electricity "too cheap to meter".

Because of the obvious dangers, the most remote parts of the country were chosen for a series of experiments. When the most elaborate of them, Scotland's prototype fast breeder reactor at Dounreay, in Caithness, also proved to be the most expensive, Mrs Thatcher pulled the plug on that too.

The equivalent of 50bn in today's money had been poured into a technology which had failed to deliver.

The reactors were closed and Thatcherite economics took over. The successful commercial spin-offs were privatised as Amersham International and then AEA Technology.

The detritus was left to the taxpayer to clear up. The estimate of the bill for cleaning up the four main United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) sites, Harwell in Oxfordshire, Dounreay, Winfrith in Dorset and Sellafield in Cumbria, is 7.1bn. It will take 50 years to dismantle the dream - the same time as it took to build it - and 250,000 years before the radioactivity they created decays away.

Paul Brown has visited all four UKAEA sites and looks at their history, the complexity of demolishing such dangerous structures, and the state of the clean-up programme.

The first is Harwell, where it all began.

• Clement Attlee was given a choice in 1947 - use the scarce amount of available steel to repair the bomb-damaged Houses of Parliament, or to build the first nuclear reactor at Harwell so Britain could join the nuclear arms race.

The prime minister chose Harwell and so began what nuclear scientists still call "the golden age" of this Oxfordshire atom laboratory.

In the days of austerity the budget was unlimited - Britain, having won the war, had to keep her status as a world power. The fruit of Attlee's decision to divert precious steel to Harwell is still there in the form of a giant box called GLEEP (the Graphite Low Energy Experimental Pile), housed in a former RAF hangar.

It is a mute but still radioactive testimony to the start of a giant, very expensive, but unfulfilled dream. It was the first of six research reactors built at Harwell. Although the first incentive was military, the scientists also wanted to harness the atom for peaceful means - it was here that the promise of "electricity too cheap to meter" was made, if not kept.

Quite soon, so much work had been created that the site was not big enough to accommodate all the reactors that the scientists wanted to build, nor remote enough to guard against possible accident. So other sites were opened at Winfrith in Dorset and Dounreay on the northern tip of Scotland.

The excitement of the new science attracted the best brains and an extraordinary can-do enthusiasm - and this has left not just a legacy of redundant reactors, but also the Rutherford Appleton space laboratory and a thriving hi-tech science park of spin-off industries.

But, as in the 1940s, the taxpayer is having to meet a high price now for those adventures on the frontiers of science 50 years ago.

For all the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority sites, the clean-up bill for the taxpayer tops 7bn, with a total bill over the next 40 years of 700m at Harwell alone.

This difficult operation has hardly been publicised.

The upside of the nuclear dream, the privatisation of AEA Technology, whereby all the inventions and spin-off industries were sold, was trumpeted by the last government.

The downside, whereby the taxpayer was left picking up the bills, and until far into the next century, was hardly mentioned.

For the staff at UKAEA, adjustment from rolling back the frontiers of technology to cleaning up the mess has been difficult. Their bit of Harwell has gone in the space of 30 years from embodying Harold Wilson's "white heat of new technology" to being a rubbish dump.

Even though it may be a sophisticated dump, this still entails a big drop in esteem.

John Wilkins, head of site, said: "There are a few people who live in the past, remembering the huge research and development facilities, when we were at the centre of events. We have to face up to the fact that nuclear power has not lived up to the hopes and promises of the early days, it is not part of our role any more.

"There is a growing focus on environmental issues and re-use of brownfield sites, and we match up well against those. We find there is a lot of satisfaction now in removing redundant facilities and adapting to new roles."

Proof that money was no object at Harwell can be seen in the buildings which are to be demolished. The construction workers lived in pre-fabs, now long gone, but then-scarce materials like stainless steel were widely used in the labs.

The former RAF station, from which the glider-borne troops who were the first to land on the Normandy beaches had been launched, was transformed into a top secret science establishment. Dozens of brick and concrete buildings, which eventually housed 6,000 staff, were built in a remarkably short time.

GLEEP ran for 43 years and became the world's longest running reactor. It was followed by the much larger British Experimental Pile or BEPO, the prototype of the first Magnox reactor at Calder Hall at Windscale, opened by the Queen in 1956. The Windscale station, now renamed Sellafield, is still running.

There followed a series of other reactors with names like Zephyr, Zeus, Zeta, Dido, Pluto and Lido, all to explore the possibilities of the new science. After 11 years of dual civil and military existence, the military applications were hived off to nearby Aldermaston in Berkshire, where nuclear weapons are still made.

The feverish work continued at Harwell on a technology its staff believed was going to transform the world. The dream faded when the Conservative government finally pulled the plug on British reactor research.

Margaret Thatcher decided to build an American-designed reactor called Sizewell C in Suffolk. This was the end for pure research at Harwell. It caused anger and bewilderment among those scientists who remembered the "golden age."

The UKAEA's mission statement no longer mentions harnessing the power of the atom, but now emphasises dismantling and restoring the giant Harwell site to a non-nuclear use. Although this will take more than 40 years, work is well under way.

The nuclear legacy will retreat to a small enclave while new industries are established in the science park. Employment, which peaked at 6,000 in the 1950s, fell back to 4,500 in the 1980s and 2,550 last year. Now it is on the rise again.

Only last week National Power moved on to the site with 120 staff to begin new battery research into how to store surplus electricity.

The UKAEA is tackling the decommissioning work stage by stage. All the reactors have had their fuel removed and they are now on a "care and maintenance basis" waiting until the radioactivity inside the hulks has decayed enough for the reactors to be demolished safely. Some of the older buildings, used for labs or storage, have their radioactivity cleaned off. This nuclear waste has to be disposed of in special facilities on site and the rest of the "clean" building demolished or refurbished for a new use.

The low-level waste is sent to the British Nuclear Fuels disposal site at Drigg in Cumbria, but there is nowhere permanent in Britain for the more dangerous wastes to go.

As a result the taxpayer has had to stump up 20m for a new waste store at Harwell. The new store is designed to last 50 years, by which time the AEA hopes the government will have opened a site where all the nation's radioactive waste can go, and Harwell can finally be returned to a non-nuclear use.

• Tomorrow: the story of atoms for peace at Winfrith

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