Let's Go Nuclear...
What could go wrong?..
I hope all of you had a good summer break?
I’m back, rummaging through those old notebooks…
The side effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are many, but one is the renewed belief in government that we must have nuclear power. This despite the ongoing drama of the Zaporizhzhia plant. In his last speech as prime minister, Boris Johnson announced that the controversial Sizewell C reactor in Suffolk will go ahead.
During the pandemic summer of July 2021, I walked for 500 miles around the coasts of Suffolk and Essex as part of an arts project, Beach of Dreams. My companions for the entire walk were Ali Pretty from the arts organisation Kinetika and John Offord from the BBC. On the third day of our walk we were to pass Sizewell and on this day, like all the others, we would post our starting point and time, then see who showed up. The following story is a combination of my blog, written on the same day, and the more extensive notes I took at the time.
Deep in the reed beds of Walberswick marshes a bird is calling vociferously, but I can't see it. This is a world where you don't see. The breeze sizzles through the reeds and the grasses whose tops are above eye level. The bird calls again. "It's saying, 'Oi, don't you know my name?'" says Jenny, who is walking behind me. "Ceti's warbler. They used to be winter visitors, but now they stay all year."
Having finished yesterday some miles inland, up the River Blyth, we have spent the morning heading back towards the sea. At first we are in the outskirts of Halesworth, picking up several walkers who can steer us through the complexities of overgrown paths. Lockdown has forced many to walk paths that had been forgotten for years. In one spot we find an old Morris Minor sitting inside the ruins of a garage, its grey paintwork and glass slowly disappearing under a growth of algae. Inside, however, the red leather upholstery looks shiny. On the windscreen a youthful finger has drawn the command, "SUCK TIT". One middle-aged birdwatcher lady frowns and leans forward to read it. Her eyes widen and she steps back with a faintly puzzled look, clutching her binoculars. Under her breath I hear her say, "Goodness! It says suck tit."
We plunge through woodland and salt marshes to emerge back on the coast near Dunwich where, for the first time, we see protest signs about the plans for a new nuclear power station down the coast at Sizewell. Beside a placard reading "Stop Sizewell C", there is a tray of pelargoniums on sale at £2 a pot.
Most of this coastal land is low-lying, but there are lumps of wooded ground that protrude. These are founded on a rock known as coraline crag, a rare geological accretion of sea shells that formed over five million years ago. At one of these outcrops Jenny stops and tells us why it means so much to her. "Maybe one day, my descendants will come here. They will have to come by sea because of rising sea levels and they'll find an island."
A little further on, we come to Minsmere bird reserve, one of the RSPB's flagship sites where Arctic terns nest close to avocets. In the bird hide someone tells me about the cruel ironies of nature. The protection of avocets has aroused the interest of badgers who sneak in and eat the eggs. Even rarer are the bittern chicks, but they have proved attractive to otters who snack on them. Predators are relentless.
Ahead now is the distinctive white dome of Sizewell's nuclear reactor and our group has swelled to over sixty people now, most of them clearly here to protest. Sizewell looms over everything here. It looms over the vegetated shingle, a rare habitat only found in a handful of places around the world: a place of floral and insect abundance. And it looms over the human population with plans to build new reactors. The old A and B reactors were constructed on the relatively firm foundation of a coraline crag outcrop, but that firm ground has all been used up and the new one, C, will require the protection of a vast wall of concrete from the sea.
One day, if built, it's rusting hulk will be an island, but I doubt Jenny's descendants will want to paddle out to it. The plan seems utterly bonkers.
Offshore is an ugly concrete and iron gantry that once marked the outfall where hot water from the Sizewell A reactor was pumped out to sea. When the reactor was closed in 2006, kittiwakes adopted the gantry and now nest all along its ledges, thus preventing the dismantling of the eyesore.
As if to emphasize the menace of the reactor, the skies go dark with clouds. Opposite the white dome, all around the warning signs, the flowers are especially fine: close to the ground are pink beach peas and yellow bedstraw, over them tower the sea poppies and restharrow. We stop and a woman tells the group about her attachment to this bit of coast.
By this time we have completed around 18 miles and my foot is throbbing. I sit on the shingle, barely paying attention. She is talking airily about 'engineering' and 'electricity', not exactly declaring pro-nuclear opinions, but not far short.
I notice looks exchanged between the listeners. "Who is she?" hisses one man. "No idea. Not local." says another. "Must be a plant - from EDF." That is the French state-owned company who hope to build the new reactor. If she is, then English politeness saves her from potential embarrassment as no one shouts her down.
We push on to the end which is at Maggi Hambling's sculpture, Scallop, on the shingle at Aldeburgh. Our 21 mile walk over, John and I get a taxi to the campsite. The driver instructs us to wear masks and when we drop into the back seat, find we are separated from him by a sheet of ill-fitting plastic. "What do you think of the Sizewell C plan?" I ask.
He shrugs. '"It's good," he says. "We need the jobs. I used to work up there and we only ever had one leak."
John and I exchange a look of horror. Is only ‘one leak’ acceptable?
“Yeah,” he says breezily, “Alarm went off. Whole place shut down. Job done.”
I look at the plastic sheet. On embarking inside the taxi, I had assumed it was to protect him from Covid contamination, but now I’m wondering who is contaminated, and with what? When we reach the destination, he opens a little flap in the sheet and pushes a payment terminal through. My bank card touches the terminal and there is a bleep. The flap closes.