Andy Blowers reveals why Bradwell B came to be in the December 2020 column for Regional Life magazine
If we were starting from scratch is it conceivable that the low-lying Dengie peninsula and the shallow Blackwater estuary could be chosen as a site for a gigantic two reactor, 2 GW power station, including cooling towers and pipelines, port facilities, turbines, spent fuel stores, accommodation blocks, transmission towers, access roads and construction works? Yet, in 2009, the Government decided that Bradwell was one of only eight sites ‘considered to be potentially suitable for the deployment of new nuclear power stations by the end of 2025’. On the face of it Bradwell would seem a most unsuitable site for such a gigantic industrial complex. So, the obvious and perplexing question is – Why Bradwell?
Looking along the Dengie shoreline the answer stares you in the face; the grey-blue clad, modernist hulk of Bradwell A. The site was originally chosen for its remoteness, availability and proximity to ample cooling water. In the 1950s there was public trust in the new technology of nuclear power and safety issues were airily dismissed. A newspaper at the time commented, ‘Would an atomic explosion once every generation, or perhaps less, be acceptable as the price to pay for this new power?’. Radioactive waste was simply a non-problem. ‘Methods of dealing with radioactive waste matter were so well-known in all the countries of the world that there was no hazard attached to the disposal of them’.
Bradwell A was one of the first operating of a fleet of nine ‘magnox’ power stations, ‘even though’ the Government stated, ‘they will be of inherently safe design [they] will not be built in heavily built-up areas’. The station operated for 40 years (1962-2002) and was the first to achieve its planned shutdown. Over the years Bradwell was portrayed as a station operating safely and harmoniously with the surrounding population. In fact, a culture of secrecy concealed cover ups, including the not-so-secret 28 year leak of Tritium into the environment that earned Bradwell A the nickname of ‘the Tritium Teabag’ and Magnox a fine of £400k in 2009.
During the 1980s Bradwell was one of the ‘Four Sites Saga’, selected by Nirex (the radioactive waste disposal company) as a potential disposal site. The idea was dropped after mass protests at all four sites but the saga demonstrated that Bradwell was no longer, if it ever had been, a haven for peaceful coexistence with nuclear power. The station ceased operating in 2002 and began decommissioning, a technical way of describing its new function as a radioactive waste facility. In short, Bradwell is now an operational nuclear dump.
Bradwell A persists and, therefore, Bradwell B exists. It was selected after a laborious and highly technical ‘independent’ assessment which reached the underwhelming conclusion that Bradwell was potentially suitable for one of a fleet of new nuclear stations which would drive the country’s ‘nuclear renaissance’. No-one was fooled as to the real reasons for the choice: ‘At Bradwell, the Government in particular notes that there was already knowledge about the site developed through the construction and operation of the adjacent power station’.
And so, Bradwell B, if it comes to pass, will follow in Bradwell A’s footsteps, first as a power station, then as a nuclear waste dump – but with some important differences. Soon after shutdown Bradwell A was defueled. By contrast, Bradwell B’s spent fuel will be stored on site until well into the next century, perhaps, indefinitely. If, as is quite possible, there is no deep disposal facility available, these dangerous wastes would be left stranded as the impacts of climate change wreak havoc on the crumbling shoreline.
Even with spent fuel removed, risk persists at Bradwell A. Intermediate-Level Waste (ILW) will be stored for around 100 years, or indefinitely if no national waste repository materialises. And the Bradwell store is taking ILW from other sites, Dungeness and Sizewell, making it a regional radioactive waste dump.
A long after life
Bradwell A was declared the lead site in a process called ‘deferred decommissioning’ and entered its Care and Maintenance phase in 2018. Behind the shiny cladding the irradiated graphite reactor cores (ILW), left after the spent fuel was removed, remain passively in situ for at least another 60 years. By then radioactivity will have declined to levels deemed safe enough for removal, though how this will be done and where they will be disposed of is another issue.
Bradwell A faces a long after life with no certainty if and when the site will finally be cleared and returned to ‘normal’ uses. What is certain is that it is, to all intents and purposes, a nuclear waste storage facility, no different in principle and purpose from the one so vigorously opposed in the 1980s.
Silent now, Bradwell A stands sentinel to the interminable risks of nuclear power. But, its mere existence has given rise to the prospect of a new nuclear station, ten times larger, and with far higher levels of radioactivity, persisting far longer into the future on the fragile Bradwell site.