OLDBURY-ON-SEVERN, Britain (Reuters) - The world’s oldest running nuclear reactor is due to shut at 1100 GMT on Wednesday after 44 years of operation, starting the countdown to 2025, by when a new British nuclear station is expected to open on a site just a few hundred meters away.
Some local residents who have lived in this quaint village for decades say they had no choice when the plant was first built in the 1960s and have little prospect of preventing a new station now, given that the Oldbury site has already been shortlisted for new nuclear plants by the government.
Allan Knapp, 86, remembers when the local government started speaking in 1958 of the construction one of the world’s first civil nuclear plants on a huge field, a site next to his childhood home, on the banks of the river Severn, 12 miles north of Bristol.
“Nobody wants a nuclear plant on their doorstep,” he said. “But back then people accepted it in the end because radiation was little known about. If a power station is going to be, it’s going to be.”
A joint venture of two German utilities, E.ON and RWE, plans to build a new Oldbury nuclear plant more than six times the capacity of the current station by 2025, relying on a strong government drive in favour of nuclear power to help reduce carbon emissions.
The new plant will use so-called pressurized water reactors (PWR), which require the construction of huge cooling towers containing water, a part of the project residents fear will further spoil their landscape.
Horizon, the German joint venture, said its preferred choice of cooling towers was only around 15 meters higher than the plant’s current reactor buildings, two blue and white striped cylinders that peak out between trees and fields from miles away.
The project is early in the planning stages, and Horizon is still far away from applying for necessary planning and environmental permits from UK agencies and the local government, which will give Olbury-on-Severn residents a say.
Japan’s Fukushima nuclear crisis nearly one year ago has not swayed nuclear plant developers or the UK government’s opinion about the necessity for new nuclear capacity, although developers such as EDF Energy admit the incident has pushed back timetables for other new stations.
“People here just want to get on with their lives. They don’t want a new nuclear plant,” said Reg Illingworth, who lives in a cottage decked with solar panels less than one mile from the Oldbury station and who also leads a local anti-nuclear movement.
“Fukushima has galvanized the idea that nuclear should and could be stopped.”
On the site of the world’s oldest nuclear plant, run by U.S.-owned Magnox, with its weather-worn paint and 1960s-style concrete architecture, employees say Fukushima has strengthened their will to run their nuclear plant even more safely and are sad to see it turned off.
“Control room staff requested not to press the shutdown button, saying ‘I don’t want it to be me’,” Site Director Phil Sprague said.
“Some of the workers got quite emotional; they have worked here for 40 years.”
Most plant staff will continue working on site for another 12 to 18 months to start dismantling the nuclear plant, but headcount will drop by around one quarter after that, with most workers going into retirement, Sprague said.
For Project Manager Matt Thames the new Oldbury nuclear plant is likely to be a future employer as the south-westerner wants to continue working in the nuclear industry in his home region.
“We join fairly young. I never intended to stay within the same industry for 22 years, it kind of happens,” he said, wearing his wind-proof black Magnox jacket proudly.
“It’s the availability of work in the industry that attracted me to it.”
editing by Jane Baird