Hive of (in)activity

An appropriate image?

Hunterston B power plant visitors center, 9 December 2014. Photograph by Peter Snowdon

On an ordinary day, there are more than 900 workers on site at Hunterston B. During an “incident”, when countless “contractual partners” are brought in to help out, that number can double. But on the day we visited, we perhaps saw at most twenty workers during the two hours we were inside the plant. We visited the reactors, the turbine room, and the central control room, but the ten people in our party always outnumbered those who were busy in the spaces below the viewing gallery. And in the corridors, we passed only one or two people from time to time—sometimes the same person heading first in one direction, then the other. We never had to wait for an elevator. We were told always to walk to the left to avoid collisions and congestion, but hardly ever met anyone coming in the opposite direction.

Where do they keep all these “workers”? And what do they do?

Our guides—all four of them—showed us the parts of the plant where the uranium does its work, and the electricity is generated—huge spaces, as large as a cathedral, or a steelworks. But it seems they forgot to show us the parts where the human beings labour. Are these zones “hidden” from visitors because what goes on there is too confidential, too secret? Are the activities that keep the plant running too fraught with danger, too fragile to risk even the slightest disturbance? Or are they simply too boring, and too unglamorous—too inappropriate to the image that the company, and the industry, wishes to project?

The novelist Charles Stross has described a guided tour he took of the nuclear reactor at Torness, near Edinburgh. His experience was different from ours in some obvious ways—he was shown round by his friend Les, who works at the reactor, and so he got to walk right through the control room, and to “crawl” all over the equipment we were only able to see from a safely-encased distance. But his account of his visit has the same eery ambiance—in all this gigantic complex of extremely large and powerful equipment, he doesn’t seem to have met (or at least, if he did, he didn’t consider it worth his notice) even a single other human being.

Summing up the impression of power he took away from his walk across the lid of one of the reactors, Stross writes:

I can report that, standing on top of an operational 600 MW nuclear reactor weighing several thousand tons, all you can feel is a slight rumbling vibration like distant traffic felt through a road surface—there’s no indication that metres below your feet, hundreds of tons of gas compressed to conditions more normally associated with the surface of Venus are being blasted through the guts of a radioactive inferno.

All the human labour that goes into operating the two reactors at Hunterston B is as hidden to the visitor as are the chain reactions that constitute their mechanism. An AGR may be an inferno, but the room that houses it differs from Dante’s vision of hell in one very significant way: his was full of people.