Powering on after 30 years

Apprentices, from left, Elliott Greaves, (electrical) Jake Hope (components and instrumentation) and Harry Wallbank (mechanical fitter).
Apprentices, from left, Elliott Greaves, (electrical) Jake Hope (components and instrumentation) and Harry Wallbank (mechanical fitter).

Heysham Power Stations will open to the public this month for the first time in seven years. Our chief reporter GREG LAMBERT had his own inside peek at the power stations as Heysham 1 and 2 prepared to mark their respective 30th and 25th birthdays

EDF Energy, owners of Heysham Power Stations, have a mission statement which says ‘Nuclear safety is our over-riding priority.’

For staff and visitors to Heysham 1 and 2, there is no escaping this motto, as it’s emblazoned on signs all over the site.

Whether you agree with nuclear power or not, it’s crystal clear that producing it responsibly is the number one concern for the 1,500 staff working across the two stations.

Security is a close second. As soon as I arrive at Heysham 1 on a gorgeous blue-skied morning, I have to fill in a form, produce identification, empty my pockets and then be frisked by a guard, just to be allowed into the complex.

“Security has changed over the years, it’s one of the reasons why we closed down visitor centres after 9/11.”

Ian Stewart, station director of Heysham 1, is looking forward to the power stations becoming more accessible to the public once again.

A new visitor centre has opened and guided tours of Heysham 2 will begin later this month, with Heysham 1 following in 2014.

Ian first came to Heysham 1 as an apprentice in 1981 as the station was being built and commissioned ahead of its opening in 1983.

“Morecambe was an amazing place at the time. There were about 3,000 people working on the site. All the hotels were booming.”

Although the stations now operate with half that number, Heysham 1 and 2 remain the biggest employers in the area. Their contractors still fill our B&Bs and spend money in the town, especially whenever the stations are shut down for maintenance, also known as outages, when an extra 1,200 staff are brought in.

“It’s still a great place to be,” says Ian.

“People enjoy working here. We are a fairly low turnover business. We pay our people quite well and we treat them very well.”

After spells as plant manager and acting station director, Ian took over as head honcho three years ago.

He still gets a buzz from the industry he’s been part of since he was a 16-year-old apprentice, especially when he sees young people following a similar path.

Heysham Power Stations employs 60 apprentices on a four-year programme. Competition for places is fierce, as the 60 have been whittled down from 400 applicants, most from local secondary schools.

I speak to four apprentices: Jake Hope, 20, from components and instrumentation, mechanical apprentice Harry Wallbank, 20, electrician Elliott Greaves, 21, and chemist Beth Thomas, 21. All are keen and proud to work at Heysham. They know if they meet the required standards, they are almost guaranteed a job at the end of the four years.

“The nuclear industry fascinates me,” says Beth, whose dad Martin also works there as a Fuel Route Team Leader.

After chatting to the young blood, I am given a tour of Heysham 2 by head of communications, Martyn Butlin.

Before that, Martyn gives me a quick safety briefing and finds me some PPE, or Personal Protection Equipment, which makes me look a bit like Bob the Builder.

Clad in boiler suit, hard hat, goggles and earphones, I’m taken to the nerve centre of the operation. The temperature rises as I am taken closer to the industrial part of Heysham 2, over an indoor glass-covered bridge and through a maze of corridors patrolled by staff dressed similarly to me, some armed with clipboards as they carry out their daily checks.

I pass security coded doors and departmental signs with interesting job titles like ‘Access and Insulation Liaison’ and ‘Execution Support Team’. A sign on the wall acclaims ‘112 days since a human performance error’. Martyn says that no matter how small this error may have been, it will have triggered an in-depth investigation.

Another sign says that 39% of all injuries in 2012 across EDF’s eight-strong fleet of UK power stations were hand injuries. Gloves on, then, as I enter ‘Turbine House 8’. Earphones on too, to protect me from an incessant loud whirring noise.

The turbines are housed in huge purple cyclinders and spin around like giant tumble dryers to produce enough power for over 750,000 homes.

During outages, which Martyn describes as “the equivalent of an MOT and service”, these turbines will be shut down. Outages take place every three years and help prove to the Office of Nuclear Regulation that the stations are operating safely and can continue to do so.

Next up, Martyn shows me one of the reactors (there are two on each site) through a viewing window. A reactor can be loosely described as a massive concrete tin.

“The reactor creates heat, which heats the water, which creates the steam, which hits the turbines and creates the power,” he explains.

And it runs off fuel sourced from a place near Preston called Springfields, not to be confused with ‘Springfield’, home of The Simpsons’ famous cartoon power plant.

After checking out Heysham 2’s cool-looking Bond film-style control room, all red buttons and ring binders, Martyn introduces me to Ian Haines, Heysham 2’s technical and safety manager.

Ian’s job is to monitor all types of safety at Heysham 2, including minimising radiation and the health of the reactor cores. He says the lessons from disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima have been digested and learned from, and planning for a worst case scenario is paramount.

“But the chances of something going wrong here are minute,” he assures me.

“We talk about an ‘event’ being once every 10,000 years.

“Our benchmark was Shell. They had a better safety record than us, we have now overtaken them.”

Ian believes open-ness and transparency are key to improving the public’s faith in the safety of nuclear power.

“They know Sellafield but know little about Heysham, yet 4-5% of the UK’s power annually comes from Heysham 1 and 2,” he says.

“I am amazed by the number of people locally who have no concept that there is a power station on their doorstep.”

There’s no doubt that the new visitor centre and guided tours will give people a much better understanding of the important role Heysham Power Stations play in our community.

Visits to Heysham 2 can be booked through visitor centre manager Donna Diamond on 01524 868451 or email heyshamvisitorcentre@edf-