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History of Dungeness nuclear power station as both reactors travel the road to decommissioning

In 1958, when it was announced that Kent had been selected to site one of the nation's first atomic power stations, a senior figure in the planning process described nuclear power as "as safe as stairs".

In retrospect, it was probably an odd analogy to make. After all, a catastrophe on a flight of steps wouldn't spread radiation on a scale which would decimate much of the south coast.

Early stages of laying the foundations of the power station in 1961
Early stages of laying the foundations of the power station in 1961

But it was a sign of the confidence in the new atom-splitting technology's ability to generate electricity for the masses.

After all, during its development in the Second World War, the science had been focused on creating conflict-ending weapons; albeit at huge human cost.

"When man learned to split the atom," explained Donald Clark, chief planning engineer for what was then the Central Electricity Generating Board as they outlined plans for a power plant in Dungeness, "he brought in new hazards as well as benefits. But we will have to learn to live with them and take care."

And care has certainly been taken in the imposing concrete blocks which house both Dungeness A and B nuclear reactors; both of which are now in the process of being dismantled.

It was announced in June of this year that Dungeness B was entering the defuelling stage - the first part of its decommissioning process. Dungeness A is way ahead in the process having stopped producing electricity back in 2006.

Dungeness power station defines the local landscape
Dungeness power station defines the local landscape

But don't expect the landscape to be returned to how it once was any time soon - the process of safety dismantling the sites is not expected to be complete until near the end of the century.

For those on the Romney Marsh it signals the end of an era.

Aside from the once sprawling Chatham Dockyard, there can be few areas of the county so defined by an industry than Dungeness.

And, like Medway when the docks were closed in 1984, the shingle headland on the Marsh will have to learn to adapt to life without the nuclear power station which has towered over its flat landscape for close to 60 years.

While many may baulk at the heavily guarded industrial site dealing in often such divisive materials next to nature reserves, it has provided employment for many thousands of people over the years - becoming a vital employer in an area which can often feel a long way from the major towns.

The power station pictured in 1969
The power station pictured in 1969

When plans for Dungeness A were first announced, it was confirmed it would house a so-called Magnox reactor (named as such as the fuel cans were made of magnesium alloy).

Like almost all nuclear power sites, it needed to be sited near water. A requirement to ensure it could access the millions of litres of water it needed every day as part of its cooling system. Sea water in the Channel was not only cold but free.

In fact, the water pumped back out into the sea after the process, some 120 metres off the coast, having been warmed 12-degrees, creates what local fisherman know as 'the boils' and attracts various species providing rich pickings for anglers.

But when the plans for Dungeness were first announced concern over nuclear safety were high.

In 1957, just the year before, the UK's worst nuclear incident took place at Windscale in Cumbria (now part of the Sellafield site).

Nuclear energy has long divided opinion
Nuclear energy has long divided opinion

The site was being used at the time to produce weapons-grade plutonium for the military - the primary use for many of the nuclear sites built during the 1950s as tensions between the East and West continued.

While heavily played down by the government at the time, a fire at the site raged for three days and released radioactive fallout which spread across the UK and Europe. It has since been linked to some 240 cancer cases - many of which proved fatal.

Milk produced within 200 square miles was destroyed for fear of contamination.

If anything, it heightened the political and public sensitivities of handling such potentially hazardous material and saw considerable additional money invested in ensuring no repeat.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was opposition from nature groups in Kent at the Dungeness plans – especially as it would intrude into a site of great scientific importance.

Aerial view of Dungeness power station in May 1968
Aerial view of Dungeness power station in May 1968

The Nature Conservancy, a government research council for natural sciences and biological service, objected during the public enquiry into the power station plans, staged at the end of 1958 in Lydd.

But it got short shrift from officials from the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) who accused them of "using any argument, however ill-founded" to oppose the plans.

Counsel for the CEGB said a book the Nature Conservancy had prepared outlining its opposition was full of "exaggerated opinion and false suggestions" and castigated an organisation which was "supposed to be interested in the promotion of science" to stand in its way.

Duly given the go ahead to become only the fifth atomic power station in the UK at the time, the estimated cost was £60million - which in today's money would be worth a staggering £1.5billion.

Built under contract by the Cheshire-based Nuclear Power Group, the original power station - what is today known as Dungeness A - eventually possessed two nuclear reactors, each capable of producing 219MW of electricity. Which, very roughly, was enough to power around 100,000 homes.

The central control room at Dungeness A nuclear power station in 1964
The central control room at Dungeness A nuclear power station in 1964

Each reactor was housed in a protective dome which, in turn was surrounded by a seven-foot concrete shield. Huge 90-tonne steel drums for use in the boiler house were made on the Tees and then transported by boat to the Kent coast in what was an enormous feat of engineering.

Work on the site - which takes up about a quarter of the complex which stands today – began in 1960. Five years later it was first connected to the National Grid.

No sooner had the power started to flow, than the nod was given for a second station at the site – to be known as Dungeness B.

Commissioned in August 1965, it would be an advanced gas-cooled reactor (AGR) - the first of a second wave of atomic sites in the UK.

But its birth would be a long and troublesome one.

Dungeness B during construction in 1966 - it would take far longer to be completed
Dungeness B during construction in 1966 - it would take far longer to be completed

The contract to build the site - with a view to being operational in 1970 - was given to the Atomic Power Construction consortium. It must have celebrated to land a contract worth, then, £89m (today £1.9bn). But it would ultimately put it out of business.

Huge complications with construction - including huge elements having to be completely redesigned and areas demolished and rebuilt - saw the costs spiral and its switch-on dramatically delayed.

The consortium behind it staggered under the cost implications and by 1969 went into administration.

The project was taken over by the CEGB which commissioned British Nuclear Design and Construction (BNDC) as the main contractor. But the issues persisted.

Incredibly, it was not until 1983 that it, finally, started generating electricity - 13 years behind schedule. The final bill is thought to have ballooned to four-times that of the original estimate.

Inside the turbine hall at Dungeness B
Inside the turbine hall at Dungeness B

But it joined the A station in becoming an integral part of the nation's power creating facilities.

As the curtain slowly begins to be drawn on its operational era, don’t expect to see things change just yet.

To give an indication of the length of time the winding down period will take, defuelling of Dungeness A took six years with the main turbine hall demolished five years later.

According to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which takes over the running of the sites once they are defuelled by owners EDF Energy, Dungeness A will enter a stage described as 'care and maintenance' in 2027 with the final demolition of the reactor building and final site clearance earmarked for some point between 2088 and 2098.

So few, if any of us, are likely to ever see Dungeness return to the state it was before the power station came to town.

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