The stark white dome of the Sizewell B nuclear reactor has sat ominously on the Suffolk coast since the plant first came online back in 1995. As the UK’s newest nuclear power station, it was originally designed to be the first in a fleet of nuclear facilities across the country which would provide reliable low-carbon energy to homes and businesses across the UK.
Of course, governments change and as a result Sizewell B still remains the newest nuclear facility as well as the only reactor design of its type anywhere in the country.
Myself and my colleague Alice arrived at the Visitor’s Centre, ready and waiting for the tour to begin. We were introduced to our guides who greeted us all and gave us a briefing on what nuclear power actually is and how it is generated.
The general principle of power generation is the same as any other power plant – fuel is consumed, generating heat which is used to create steam. This steam spins a set of turbines which in turn spins a magnet around copper wire, generating electricity. This holds true in a nuclear power station as well, except instead of burning coal or gas, heat is derived from nuclear fission.
The fuel used at Sizewell is Uranium-235, which is stored in small pellets about the size of a fingertip. Each pellet contains the same amount of energy as 750kg of coal! In the reactor, uranium atoms are bombarded with neutrons wich causes them to split apart, releasing heat. Each time an atom splits, more neutrons are thrown out and hit more uranium atoms, and so on - causing a chain reaction. It is this chain reaction that generates the heat used to create the steam.
After learning a bit more about how the plant operates, we donned our protective gear and split into around 6 groups of 6 each – this made the whole tour much more personal as we each had our own guide with their own specialist subject.
Passing through airport-style security, we finally found ourselves standing on the licensed nuclear site. Our guide, Debbie, began with a talk about radiation. To my surprise, the level of background radiation on site is no higher than anywhere else in Suffolk – even if you were standing right next to the reactor! In fact, you would be exposed to more radiation going on holiday to Devon & Cornwall than you would at Sizewell B (due to the natural radioactivity in the granite.)
Of course, nuclear power is not without its problems. It is a ferociously expensive technology and requires a huge amount of investment upfront – the newest plant, Hinkley Point C in Somerset, is expected to cost around £20 billion. It also produces extremely radioactive waste products – although low in volume, these products must be melted down with glass, sealed into steel canisters and stored in a deep geological storage facility, never to be reopened.
Our guide took us around the plant, looking at the way they pump water into the plant for cooling and use mechanisms to filter out fish and sea life that might get drawn in too. We saw the giant transformers which take the raw energy from the plant and make it safe for transport on electricity pylons. We also had the opportunity to touch one of the turbines and feel 1.5% of the UK’s electricity!
Four hours and many pairs of tired legs later, we arrived back at the visitor’s centre for a coffee and a sit down, having already learned more about nuclear power generation than most people will in a whole lifetime!
Selection of feedback from the event
"EDF staff were friendly and knowledgeable. Nuclear energy is a divisive subject but they put their case well, especially the safety side. I would like to thank the Ipswich Building Society for organising the member events and supporting the local community."
"Thank you SO much for organizing the Sizewell B event. It was brilliant! The two guides were superb and certainly knew their stuff! It was really nice to meet Alice & Jake and other IBS members - well done!"
"Have been on a few of your events but this was definitely the best yet."