OLDBURY POWER STATION (Reuters) - Warm pipes in the reactor building and the quiet hum of a turbine are signs of the powerful chain reaction taking place at Oldbury nuclear power station, but it will not be operating much longer.
All but one of Britain’s nuclear power stations will be shut by 2023, and the government insists it must make a decision this year on whether to build new nuclear power plants.
Publishing an energy policy document on Wednesday, Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair Darling said the government had reached a “preliminary view that it would be in the public interest to allow energy companies to invest in nuclear power.”
Decommissioning ageing nuclear plants, like 40-year-old Oldbury in western England, and storing their toxic waste will cost around 70 billion pounds, according to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.
“It will be sad, this will all be buried underground,” said Robin Beeby, defuelling manager, looking out over hundreds of cooling pipes criss-crossing Oldbury’s turbine hall.
Workers not involved in the shutdown will hang up their yellow protective bodysuits and walk through the digital contamination detector for the last time in December 2008 when the plant stops pumping power to the national grid.
The complete Oldbury shutdown will cost around 1 billion pounds and could take 110 years, nearly three times longer than the plant has been in operation.
Site Director Joe Lamonby said many people living in the area would like the site eventually covered by green fields to blend into the surrounding area, even if it is not within their lifetime.
“We could return it to a green field site but that would be more expensive than using it for another industry or indeed another nuclear site,” he said.
Darling said on Wednesday it would make sense for any new nuclear plants to be built alongside existing ones, because all the necessary infrastructure and links to the National Grid were already there.
Deep inside Oldbury’s two concrete reactors, the remote controlled refuelling machine, the size of a small industrial crane, will work around the clock to remove the 53,000 radioactive fuel rods from the 360 degrees Celsius core.
By 2109, only the empty reactor shells will mark the skyline over the banks of the River Severn and nine years later, all will be gone, unless another company decides to build a new plant in its place.
Lamonby said some local residents will regret the closure.
“A lot of them are supportive because they have lived with the site for the best part of 40 years. They like us being here because we are quite a good neighbour — we bring a lot of income into the area.”
The River Severn estuary has the second highest tides in the world and is often proposed as a potential energy source. But the nuclear industry says power generated from renewable sources, such as wave power, cannot alone satisfy growing energy demand.
“Wave power can provide a degree of (power) but it hasn’t really been built on a scale to replace a modern 1,000 megawatt or 2,000 megawatt plant,” Lamonby said.
When working at full capacity, even the dated Oldbury site can produce up to 435 megawatts of electricity, enough to power two medium-size cities.
While nuclear plants now supply about 20 percent of electricity, environmental groups oppose plans for a new generation of nuclear power stations.
“The necessary cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved without resorting to the nuclear option,” environmental group WWF said in a report last week.
The government, which aims to cut emissions of carbon dioxide by 60 percent by 2050, has emphasised the environmental benefits of nuclear power, which produces far fewer harmful emissions than plants fired by coal and gas.
However, environmentalists highlight the expense of new nuclear power stations and the difficulty of disposing of nuclear waste. They say coastal nuclear plants could be at risk of flooding from rising sea levels.
Greenpeace said on Wednesday that Prime Minister Tony Blair was “dangerously wrong” to think nuclear power was the answer to climate change.
“Replacing our whole fleet of nuclear power stations would reduce our carbon emissions by just four percent,” it said.