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We visited Dungeness B power station as EDF prepares to begin decade long defuelling process

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to actually go inside Kent's only nuclear power station?

Our reporter Oliver Kemp was given special access by EDF to see its inner workings - here's what he saw.

Dungeness power station from the beach
Dungeness power station from the beach

The assortment of boxy shapes that make up Dungeness power station have defined the landscape for decades, and can be seen from miles away along the coast.

After generating energy for millions of homes since it went online in 1983, the remaining operational station - Dungeness B - is now preparing to move to the defuelling phase.

But the process will take close to ten years - and along with decommissioning and deconstruction will be closer to 25.

This means the majority of the 700-strong work force will still be going about their business for the foreseeable future, navigating the tight corridors and working inside the gigantic reactor and turbine hall.

So what exactly do the engineers, technicians, and nuclear specialists at Dungeness B actually see on a daily basis?

Getting used to my full PPE (awful shoes mercifully not in shot)
Getting used to my full PPE (awful shoes mercifully not in shot)

Although site owners EDF used to operate tours for visitors pre-pandemic, I was to be one of the first non-members of staff allowed on site in more than a year.

I had already been warned to expect lots of PPE and a boat-load of security measures before I could step foot into the power station - as to be expected, of course.

Despite their warnings, though, the unfamiliarity of the tight security and safety checks felt intense - from the issuing of passes, to the 6ft high turnstiles around every corner. This wasn't your common or garden airport security.

As all my camera equipment was meticulously screened for existing signs of radiation, I was handed what looked like a yellow pager with a zero emblazoned on its LCD screen.

I was then told that it would register any potential contact I had with any radiation whilst on site.

Watch: See inside the reactor, where the power station stores the nuclear fuel

Although I was reassured that it would be incredibly unlikely, I still found myself nervously glancing at the device every five minutes or so, in case the number suddenly went astronomical and I had to call my girlfriend to tell her I wouldn't be making it home for dinner.

Once I had donned two jackets, safety glasses, a hard hat, ear defenders and steel toe-capped boots that looked like school shoes from Clarks, I was lead through several high security turnstiles and on a brief lift ride before stepping foot into the gargantuan reactor room.

A huge cylindrical marvel, the vertical windows - which I was told are unusual for a nuclear reactor - gave the feeling of some kind of futuristic church.

Beneath the floor I was standing on were the twin reactor cores where the nuclear material is stored - knowing that you're standing above one of the most powerful and dangerous materials ever harnessed by the human race is quite the feeling.

The inside of the reactor
The inside of the reactor

The reactor room is split in half by a huge fuelling machine, covered in zigzags of staircases right to its peak.

Climbing up this massive piece of machinery for a better look down to the reactor's floor, I was thankful not to suffer with vertigo, gingerly moving up the stairs and holding onto the handrail for dear life.

When the process of defuelling begins, this colossal piece of tech will be used to remove fuel from the top of the reactor until eventually there is none left.

But that isn't the final stage of life for the remaining nuclear material.

Explaining to me in simple terms the complicated process of defuelling, station director John Benn said: "We take the fuel out of the reactor, we cool it in a big pond, then we put it into a very secure flask.

Watch: John Benn is the station director

"That goes off to the railways and gets transported by rail up to Sellafield in Cumbria where it's dismantled and reprocessed."

During my visit defuelling had not yet begun, and it is unlikely to properly start for another two years.

John said: "The defuelling at Dungeness is going to take longer than the other gas-cooled reactors, so we think there's 12 or 24 months before we've got all the safety justifications that we need to start defuelling.

"It'll be between six and eight years to actually defuel, so as an operating site we're going to be here for up to a decade."

The replica control room
The replica control room

I spoke to John in a multi-million pound replica of the station's control room, which was like being transported onto the set of a 70s Doctor Who episode.

A litany of buttons, knobs and screens, the control panels went along every wall of the room, used for training up the bright young EDF apprentices for their responsibilities on site.

My guide for the day, Brandon Law, had himself joined as an apprentice in 2017, and now works as an engineer on site.

Walking briskly through the blustery walkways between the reactor and the turbine hall, Brandon told me the power station had been on his mind ever since he was a teenager: "I first started wondering about what that was on the horizon at about 11-years-old.

"I could see it from my nan's house in Folkestone as I was growing up. "

Watch: Brandon Law is now a procurement engineer after doing his apprenticeship at Dungeness

Recounting the first time he ever stepped foot on site, he said: "Everything's mesmerising, it's hard to take it all in."

His first impression certainly matched mine - engulfed by complex machinery, hydraulic noise and the countless safety notices, you feel like a very tiny cog in a gigantic machine.

Well, in my case a very useless cog in a gigantic machine.

For Brandon, though, he will continue to be a vital part of the team at Dungeness B throughout the decade-long defuelling process.

Brandon said his friends are fascinated by his job at Dungeness
Brandon said his friends are fascinated by his job at Dungeness

He said: "My role as a procurement engineer won't change dramatically - pieces of the plant will still need to be maintained and new items will need to be introduced."

Now in his fourth year at the site, Brandon still routinely finds himself in awe of the huge buildings that are his workplace - as do his mates.

He said: "All my friends are fascinated at the fact I work at a nuclear power station, and they're always really impressed by the support and opportunities I've been given."

EDF are now sponsoring Brandon to complete a degree in Combined STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) with the Open University.

Next we visited the turbine hall, another huge room to rival the size of the reactor.

Watch: A look inside Dungeness B's turbine hall

But this one was filled with snaking pipes and grate walkways which revealed the turbines below, not to mention constant deafening hisses.

It was that moment that made me thankful for the ear defenders.

When the station was operating, this hall would have been yet another integral stage of the energy creation process.

After the energy reaction created in the reactor room heated water and turned it to steam, the steam would have then powered the turbines in this hall, which in turn would have driven the electrical generators.

Unsurprisingly, this sign made a frequent appearance inside the power station
Unsurprisingly, this sign made a frequent appearance inside the power station

It was an impressive sight, despite the warmth of the room steaming my safety goggles up so much I could barely see a metre in front of me.

At the end of my whistle-stop tour inside this ageing beast of a power station, I took one final glance of my yellow pager which still showed zero.

Good, no exposure for me then.

But quite possibly the strangest experience of the entire trip was left until last.

I was led to what looked like a row of metal showers, which were in fact full body scanners to check for even the slightest exposure to radiation.

Dungeness employees at work in the reactor room
Dungeness employees at work in the reactor room

A robotic voice patiently told me to place my hands in the correct position over and over again, until it finally either gave up or I actually successfully managed to do what it asked.

My entire body was scanned, and after what felt like an hour the door finally opened and I was able to exit the other side.

Making it back to the reception, I tore off my PPE as quickly as I could, hot and exhausted by the long walk around the site and the numerous security measures.

How do the hundreds of technicians and engineers deal with this everyday?

But each one I met was friendly and engaging, and there seemed to be a palpable sense of pride throughout the snaking corridors, grandiose halls and vertigo-inducing walkways of Dungeness B.

So while seeing inside the station and its remarkable machinery was amazing, the biggest impact was seeing how hard the station's engineers and technicians work every single day to ensure this incredibly powerful fuel remains safely controlled and stored.

And even when the site is finally dismantled and all that remains is the surrounding shingle, I hope that's remembered.

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