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Saturday 4 May 2019

conservation vs energy

Nature’s power struggle

  • Two nuclear power stations planned at Sizewell in Suffolk might provide a long-term energy solution but at what cost to the environment?
  • The site borders Minsmere, perhaps the most important nature reserve in Britain
  • The argument is still a civilised one – but can that last?

By Simon Barnes

The white cliffs of Dover, Bath, Stonehenge, Windermere, St Michael’s Mount – and Minsmere. Maybe Minsmere at the top. Not just nice places but deeply special places, places of the heart, places that time and again create a sense of – if you like – religious awe.

Minsmere is on the Suffolk coast at the heart of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Here birds that were once extinct in Britain flaunt themselves before the eyes of amazed visitors. Hardened birders, wet-eared beginners and everyone else with a taste for nature flock here.

It’s a nature reserve that stands right by a vast nuclear power station: Sizewell B. I watched four avocets directly in line with the great dome –the avocet is logo of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), who own and manage the place. Avocets are black and white wading birds, long-legged with turny-uppy beaks. They went extinct in this country, but miraculously returned in 1947. One of the two places they chose was Minsmere.


Avocets, the RSPB’s signature bird, wading at Minsmere

I walked deeper into the reserve and sat for a while. Every five minutes or so, I heard a series of fog-horn toots. That’s a bittern and the sound is called booming. In 1997 there were 11 booming males in the entire country. Minsmere has been at the heart of their resurgence. Last year eight nests on this site produced 12 fledged young.

High in the sky above the reserve – the white dome of the power station beneath them – marsh harriers performed their skydance, a ritual that precedes nest building. They went extinct in this country in the 19th century, came back and were hammered again, this time by pesticides. In 1971 marsh harriers were down to a single breeding pair in this country. At Minsmere. The return of the marsh harriers – the national population is now 400 pairs – began here.

Early next year EDF – the energy company Électricité de France – will seek planning permission for a new nuclear power station right on their boundary with Minsmere. Well, two actually.

They would be the third and fourth nuclear power stations to be built at Sizewell, which lies just to the south of the reserve. Sizewell A opened in 1967 and shut in 2006; it is being decommissioned at an estimated cost of £1.2 billion. I was taken on a tour of that site in 1990, when I was writing a book about Minsmere. They couldn’t have been kinder or more genuinely convinced that this was a great thing for Suffolk, for Britain, for the human race.

Sizewell B was built between 1987-95. That’s the one with the dome. It was planned to operate it until 2035, but there are proposals to extend this for  20 years. EDF very helpfully took me on a tour of this one as well.

The dome of the Sizewell B reactor

I was led by Hugh Pearson, and in the dusk with the light behind him you’d still have known he was a former science teacher, grey beard wagging hard beneath his hard hat. He loves wildlife and works as a volunteer at Minsmere. This is the only pressurised water reactor in Britain, he told me. He helped me fit the ear defenders good and snug before taking me into the heart of the operation – the turbine hall itself. Here electricity for more than two million homes is generated by atomic fission.

The scale and the ambition is powerful and moving and to walk those gantries is a stunning experience. All the people I talked to at EDF had the air of Prometheus receiving a dismayingly negative reaction from humankind after he had risked everything to bring them the gift of fire.

Birdwatchers in a hide at Minsmere

Marjorie Barnes, EDF’s external communications manager for the east of England, seemed to have genuine commitment to the project. She stressed that Sizewell B has been a good neighbour to Minsmere for 23 years.

Adam Rowlands, site manager at Minsmere, agrees. “We’ve developed a good relationship, they keep us informed.” A nuclear power station isn’t what you’d choose to have bang next door to the country’s top nature reserve, right in the middle of an AONB, on a coastline with a chain of wild and beautiful sites with varying kinds of official protection. Yet insofar as you can work with such a thing, Minsmere has and EDF has made it easy.

Adam Rowlands, Minsmere’s site manager

Pearson was explaining hard, with undiminished enthusiasm. I bet he was a great teacher. How safe it all is! If the supply of electricity Sizewell generates for its own use should fail, electricity from the National Grid cuts in. If that doesn’t work there’s a vast bank of batteries. And if they should fail too, there’s a back-up to the back-up to the back-up with diesel generators. The place keeps its trousers up with belt, braces and both hands. As you would hope.

The situation has been relatively stable for 23 years. In 2007 a slight leak from Sizewell A of 40,000 gallons of radioactive water was noticed only by chance – somebody washing his clothes in the laundry – which could have been disastrous. No matter. The place survived.

Sizewell C changes everything. It would be twice as big as A and B put together, comprising two power stations to be built for an estimated  £14 billion. The good-neighbour relationship doesn’t really help here. It may be the same company, but  a completely different set of people. There are no personal relationships to build on and it’s a completely different project, with completely separate problems. Construction  will last a good ten years and is expected to involve deliveries from 1,500 lorries every day.

This is an absolutely colossal project and is right on the Minsmere side of the site. Access will be required over a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which is supposed to have as high a level of protection as the law allows.

There are, let us say, concerns. Take water. The construction process could potentially have a radical effect on water levels in the Minsmere reed beds, where the bitterns have their being.

The Minsmere reed beds are vital for bitterns

You don’t run a nature reserve by saying “good old nature, you do what you want while I sit about with my binoculars thinking beautiful thoughts”. The Minsmere reed beds are as intensely managed as a field of oilseed rape: the RSPB is effectively farming for bitterns. Too dry and there are no creatures for the bitterns to eat, too wet and their  nests get flooded out.

There are other potential problems including light and noise pollution and the action of the sea. So Marjorie Barnes arranged a conference call, and I spoke to Carly Vince, chief planning officer, Stephen Roast, marine planning manager, and Alan Lewis, terrestrial ecologist.

I found a very high level of local knowledge, awareness of the problems, eagerness to insist that they are willing and able to solve them all. There was also a tendency to take refuge in management-speak at the drop of a strategic action plan that will take on board the consultation process involving engagement with all major stakeholders. Apparently the impact of noise on people has a potential to be significant.

So they’d build a five-metre high earth wall with wooden screening to keep light and noise pollution from Minsmere and the barbastelle bats will be just fine. The RSPB will be consulted throughout. There won’t be any surprises. In fact, once you’ve taken into account that EDF intends to build two nuclear power stations right on the doorstep of England’s premier nature reserve, they could hardly be more considerate.

Sizewell Belts is a nice area of land, part of the Sizewell estate, managed for wildlife by Suffolk Wildlife Trust (SWT). It has areas of reed bed, grazing marsh, wet woodland and heath. You can find otters, kingfishers and four species of orchid.

“EDF have been a good partner in this context,” said Julian Roughton, CEO of SWT. “We’ve been able to manage the land, make it available to the public and maintain our independence, all these things without compromise. We also have strong concerns about Sizewell C, and will continue to express them freely.”

Barnes took me to Aldhurst Farm, a couple of miles from the operational power station and the proposed site for Sizewell C. EDF has begun to manage it for wildlife. It is doing all right. Skylarks and song thrush are singing and as we walked past the reed bed, a male marsh harrier took off. They hope harriers will breed here.

Minsmere attracts 120,000 visitors a year

Legally, a developer must seek to avoid impact on the environment. If you can’t,  you must mitigate. If you can’t do that you must compensate. There is a suspicion that EDF has jumped the gun, putting compensation up front, like a footballer getting his retaliation in first. However that doesn’t let you off your legal requirement to avoid environmental impact and attempt mitigation.

There is, then, a disconnection between the people conservation organisations deal with every day and those at the top of EDF who make the big decisions – the big business decisions. In these terms, Minsmere is not so much an environmental issue as a public relations problem.

The people I spoke to at EDF drew back in genuine horror at such a suggestion and I have no doubt that their desire to do the right thing is wholly genuine.

“But if that was the case at the highest level they wouldn’t have chosen the most environmentally damaging of all the options available,” Minsmere’s Adam Rowlands said. “They wouldn’t have chosen to cross an SSSI with a culverted embankment to get to the site. There were other options, but they chose not to take them.”

The SSSI in question is their own, part of Sizewell Estate, but ownership doesn’t confer a right to trash it.

Roughton said that it was important to engage with the business step by step, rather than object on principle. “But I don’t think they have taken adequate measures to protect the environment, and at this stage it’s difficult to see how they can.”

The state-owned EDF has experienced a significant downturn in its UK operations, not least because of sterling’s dive sterling since the Brexit vote. Profits are down a third. EDF has also been criticised for delays on another nuclear project at Hinkley Point in Somerset.

Sizewell C will be twice as big as A and B put together

It’s worth mentioning that the UK capacity for renewable energy – via wind, solar, hydro and biomass – has trebled in the past five years. Renewables produce more electricity than coal, gas and oil combined, according to figures from Imperial College London.

At one level, the Minsmere-Sizewell business is a local issue. Plenty of local people and action groups object to the proposals on grounds including impact, noise, disturbance, traffic, the potential dangers of yet more nuclear development and the general marring of lovely east Suffolk. Others welcome the expansion of a large employer on their doorstep. (Minsmere attracts 120,000 people every year, bringing in £7 million to the local economy annually, while the local tourist industry, of which Minsmere is part, is worth has an estimated  £210 million a year.)

And it is also about the globally important energy debate – whether we stick to fossil fuels until they run out, take the nuclear option or go the way of Germany and invest heavily in renewables.

But there’s a further issue, and it goes to the heart of the melodramatic juxtaposition of Minsmere and Sizewell C. To what extent is nature expendable? How much more are we prepared to lose? Bearing in mind that we haven’t got much left.

The importance of Minsmere is symbolic and practical. The intention to build these massive power stations in the middle of a uniquely wild and lovely stretch of coast – in particular, to build it right by Minsmere – is like proposing a factory be built over the Victoria Memorial, spilling into St James’s Park and towering over Buckingham Palace.

Sites like Minsmere are vital to the physical and mental health of this country

Conservation is not about looking after a certain number of fabulous sites. Centres of excellence need to be surrounded by a sympathetically managed countryside. What matters is connectivity. Conservation is not a matter of nice places, it is about nice landscapes in a nice country. The Great Fen Project in Cambridgeshire is the template here.

Nature can be regarded as good thing in itself or as a matter of huge importance to the physical and mental health of people who live in this country. Either way, it is a vital resource. If we are prepared to put Minsmere at risk – Minsmere of all places, Minsmere where once-extinct birds can be seen as easily as blue tit on a garden feeder – then nature really is on the run.

Photographs by Andrew Testa for Tortoise

Further reading