The surprising story of the endangered species thriving in protected spaces alongside nuclear plants.
I first saw Sizewell B from the pebbly beach at Aldeburgh, a quaint village on the English Suffolk coast. The reactor dome hangs like a futuristic cathedral above the sandy heaths, partly obscured from the south by the less photogenic Sizewell A. This plant, the UK’s largest single source of low-carbon energy and only pressurised water reactor, is painted in blues and whites that match the shades of the wide skies and rolling seas of this coastline.
Fossil fuel plants emit gases and effluents (liquid wastes) containing sulphur, arsenic, mercury, selenium, and nitrates, and even some radioactive material. In contrast, Sizewell B only releases a stream of clean, warm water back into the sea. And unlike wind turbines or solar panels which require large areas of land, Sizewell B has a tiny land footprint.
This small footprint has allowed the flourishing of wetland and woodland habitats directly adjacent to the plant at RSPB Minsmere, RSPB Thorpeness and RSPB North Warren nature reserves. The reserves are home to the bittern, a very rare wading bird species, and a picky one at that; it only visits the most well-preserved of wetland habitats. There are thought to be only 160 breeding bittern males in the UK, 9 of which live in the marshes directly alongside Sizewell.
The RSPB describe Minsmere as being of international importance, with more than 5,600 different animals, plants and fungi having been recorded there — more than any other nature reserve in the UK. As well as the bittern, Minsmere allowed the recovery of the marsh harrier and avocet, and is home to many rare species such as nightjar, woodlark, Dartford warbler, adder, natterjack toad and silver-studded blue butterflies.
Having worked at Sizewell, I’ve seen this abundance of nature with my own eyes. Dawn on the coast alongside Sizewell is particularly beautiful, as the sun rises from the sea and plays across the saltmarshes. On morning walks through the dripping sea fog, I was always met with a huge variety of wetland bird species in reserves close to the plant.
There are thought to be only 160 breeding bittern males in the UK, 9 of which live in the marshes directly alongside Sizewell.
Sizewell isn’t alone in the UK as a nuclear plant that is both scenic and surrounded by nature. Trawsfynydd is Welsh for “across the mountain” — a fitting name for this Magnox plant situated against the breathtaking backdrop of the mountains of Snowdonia National Park. You can almost taste the fresh mountain air!
This gas-cooled, graphite-moderated plant operated for only twenty-six years but provided 470 megawatts of low-carbon power throughout. It was designed by renowned architect Basil Spence, famous for his brutalist/modernist designs, and was intended to be reminiscent of the many medieval castles located nearby.
Despite its modern design, it blends seamlessly with the rough hill terrain that surrounds it. Unlike some areas nearby which experienced heavy coal mining, the waters at Trawsfynydd are clean and a haven for wildlife. Both otters and ospreys — which previously were extinct in Wales — are known to visit the area.
Whilst the Magnox plants at Trawsfynydd have now fallen quiet, this site may well become home to the UK’s first Small Modular Reactor. The Welsh government has already received notice from thirty-eight designers interested in bringing their reactors to this picturesque site.
Not so far away from Snowdonia is the Welsh island of Anglesey, only accessible by bridge across the treacherous tidal waters of the Menai Straits. Anglesey is a land steeped in legend. It was here that the mysterious celtic druids staged their last resistance against the might of the Roman Empire in AD 60.
Amongst the roaring surf and bracing winds of the north-western tip of the island lies the Wylfa nuclear plant. Wylfa A consists of two Magnox reactors, the final of which ceased operation only in 2015. Hitachi-GE had until recently planned to build two advanced boiling water reactors here, although that project was recently suspended due to lack of a clear funding path.
Wylfa Head is about as wild as it gets in the UK. Waves crash noisily against the rocks. Sea birds cry harshly overhead. I distinctly remember my visit to this plant as a nine-year-old boy, exhilarated by the futuristic forces at play inside these unassuming buildings. To me the inner-workings of these machines were, and remain, captivating.
Nature abounds. Horizon, the current Wylfa site owners, have identfied at least five different species of bat roosting in buildings on the site, including brown long-eared bat, Natterer’s bat, common pipistrelle and soprano pipistrelle. Barn owls, kestrels and a honey bee colony have also made their home here.
Just like the bittern, avocet and others at Sizewell, a rare bird species lives right alongside this nuclear plant. The chough, a relative of the crow, is rare in the UK with only around 250 breeding pairs on mainland Britain. A colony of these noisy little birds nests amongst the Wylfa cliffs.
Although Wylfa A is now shut down, in its heyday the plant was famous amongst an unlikely group of locals: the fishermen. The place where the clean, warm water was returned to the sea after being used for cooling was known as a hotspot for angling. Perhaps it was the warm water that attracted the fish.
Comment boards from the mid-2000s are full of reports describing the abundance of fish at Wylfa. One angler said fishing at Wylfa was “like fishing in a goldfish bowl… no real skill is needed there to catch the fish”. Some complained it was so easy that it even took the sport out of it.
The variety of fish species that fishingwales.net lists for Wylfa Head speaks for itself: ling, dogfish, pollack, dabs, mackerel, wrasse, plaice, codling, whiting, conger. Many reported large numbers of bass and mullet too.
A couple of years ago I did a fantastic two-day hike with my brother who lives in Spain. We chose a beautiful route called GR-113 that happens to pass by Trillo nuclear plant, a Siemens pressurised water reactor that started operating in 1988.
The Trillo plant is on the Tajo river, which provided the only way to cool off after hauling our packs under the burning sun. We followed the route up the valley, moving between riverside glades and dusty scrubland. I was amazed by the variety of birds and lizards we saw. I wrote down the following species in my notebook:
Red deer, foxes, white wagtail, griffon vulture, greenfinch, melodious warbler, golden oriole, chaffinch, greater-spotted woodpecker, wood pigeon, turtle dove, song thrush, blackbird, larks, cuckoo and an unknown “big, green lizard”.
Spain is a bit of a haven both for wildlife and for scenic nuclear power plants. Although I’ve not visited it (yet), I’d love to spend some time at Cofrentes nuclear plant in Valencia. Like Trillo, it sits neatly within a river valley surrounded by wild greenery.
My experience from around the UK and beyond is that nature is thriving right alongside our nuclear plants. Far from having a negative impact on their surroundings, wildlife seems to benefitting from protected lands close to the plants that are free from intensive farming or industrial pollution. Perhaps it’s time to challenge our ideas about the impact of atomic energy on the environment? Only one way to tell: get out there and see these places for yourself.