There are places, even in temperate England, where a lack and an excess of water meet, shaping the landscape as surely as the grinding of tectonic plates. The belt of heath known as the Sandlings, on the Suffolk coast between Aldeburgh and Great Yarmouth, lies in one of the driest parts of the country. The low rainfall, about half the national average, is felt keenly by farmers, who must also cope with fast-draining sandy soils. Although the Sandlings was historically relegated to the grazing of sheep, which can make do with dew and grass for long periods, intensive irrigation means that today vegetables can thrive here. In summer, the pulsing silver arcs of spraying machines lend perspective to the flat landscape, their twenty-metre jets casting back and forth over fields of potatoes or onions.
But the history of water in this part of eastern England is not only one of want; the region is also defined by inundation. To look out to sea – it might be from the beach at Sizewell – is to look upon a drowned realm: from time to time, fishing boats will dredge up spearheads or mammoth teeth from the area known as Doggerland, which until the sea rose around 6500 bc connected Britain to mainland Europe. There are more recent losses. The best-known local story of inundation is that of Dunwich, the medieval port and religious centre destroyed by the sea over the course of centuries. Today, little more hangs on than a row of houses and the ruins of the thirteenth-century friary. The sea’s work continues. Locals tend to give the gravelly cliffs a wide berth when walking on the beach.
Five miles south of Dunwich, on the edge of the Sandlings, is Leiston, ‘a little northern mill town dumped in the middle of Suffolk’, as one long-term resident described it to me. Its industrial heritage makes it unusual in a region still dominated by farming. It was out of the land that Leiston’s industry emerged, with the founding in 1778 of the Richard Garrett and Sons engineering works, a small manufacturer of agricultural tools – scythes, sickles and later mechanical chaff-cutters – which grew over the course of a century and more to become a world-leading producer of steam engines, trolleybuses and industrial boilers. In 1852 the Long Shop, a cavernous hall with an internal gallery, was built in the centre of Leiston for building portable steam engines, one of the world’s first assembly lines. You would find Garrett’s machines (and Garrett’s sales reps) everywhere, from Patagonia and Siberia to the peat bogs of Ireland. Until the mid-twentieth century, when Garrett’s entered its decline, Leiston was essentially a company town. Well into the 1970s the firm employed up to 600 people in a town whose population in 1971 was 4,790. Even Leiston’s domestic water was supplied by Garrett’s until the First World War. After the war, the firm’s fortunes waned; its slow decline, marked by a failure to adapt to modern production methods, culminated in asset-stripping and mass redundancies in the late 1970s and finally closure in 1980. It is in this sense that Leiston can be said to resemble a northern mill town – it is a place with a powerful void at its centre, haunted by bygone affluence, but whose sense of community is no less real for being vestigial.
Today, the renovated Long Shop forms part of a museum. In an adjoining hall stand a horse-drawn clover huller, and a seed drill and a thresher, both of the latter steam-driven via belts; in another room is an industrial steam boiler from the 1970s: ‘A boiler/steam generator is a device used to create steam by applying heat energy to water,’ reads the sign.
Climb the stairs to the wooden gallery of the Long Shop and, in an uncharacteristically neglected corner, you will find a model of another kind of steam generator: under dusty glass, a maquette of Sizewell B nuclear power station with its distinctive white reactor Dome, which was displayed at the 1983 public inquiry into the proposed development. Some of the model trees have crumbled. Nearby is a poster showing how a pressurised-water reactor works, with its three circuits: one passing pressurised water through the reactor vessel, a second passing steam through the turbines to create electricity, and a third bringing cooling water from the sea to condense that steam back into water. The two crucial substances, it is apparent, are uranium and water.
Viewed from a fishing boat off the hamlet of Sizewell, two miles east of Leiston, the reactor Dome stands alongside the low blue hangar of Sizewell B’s turbine hall and, to the south, the corrugated grey blocks of Sizewell A’s now inactive reactor building and turbine hall.
East Suffolk’s flatness means that such tall structures are visible for many miles, even on land. It often looks as if the two stations are one, the 65-metre-tall Dome of Sizewell B seeming to emerge from the cuboids of the decommissioned Sizewell A, though more than 300 metres separate the two. I’ve seen the Dome – my instinct is to capitalise it – from as far away as Southwold nine miles to the north and the old military testing site at Orford Ness nine miles to the south, and it is frequently sighted unexpectedly from far inland, rising like a moon above a line of trees or under a bank of cloud. Viewed from a low hill near my home in the village of Westleton – a Suffolk mountain, this hill, at twenty metres above sea level – the Dome four miles away shifts in colour throughout the day, and from one day to the next, sometimes appearing as transparent as a contact lens, sometimes solid rose or pale blue, sometimes sunlit white against dark sea-clouds. Its apparent size and proximity, too, vary with the conditions: one day it will seem far more distant than four miles, a foreign dot on the horizon; the next, it is as much a part of the spirit of the place as the line of holm oaks or the thatched church in the village below. At night it glows beneath a yellowish haze.
From out at sea, the Dome dominates the coastline. The boat’s skipper, Noel Cattermole, is the only commercial inshore fisherman between Aldeburgh and Southwold, a stretch that was once dominated by fishing. He is one of those people in rural England, like the publican, the parish councillor or the cannabis dealer, who earn a certain kind of local fame. Everyone seems to know him. His stock-in-trade: rock eel, bass, the tenderest Dover sole you will ever eat. In summer there are crabs and lobsters being sluiced out in a tub behind his gutting counter. He’s meaning to retire, but he still goes out most mornings.
‘That’s my son,’ he says, when I ask about the boat’s name. The Joseph William is a 22-foot longshore beach boat with a dark blue fibreglass hull and an iroko-wood gunnel patinaed from fifteen years’ near-daily use. The floor is crammed with plastic crates overflowing with nets. We move north, engine churning, from Sizewell village, with its single line of houses, between the beach and the submerged ridge of sediment known as the Sizewell Bank. Cormorants rise, one by one, from the rusting iron outfall headworks of Sizewell A, its girders lined with disused kittiwake nests like teacups on a dresser. The station stopped operating in 2006 but the site is not expected to be fully cleared and decontaminated for nearly another eighty years. We circle a wooden stanchion 600 metres out that marks the seawater intake for Sizewell B, the surface giving no hint of what is happening below us, the millions of litres of water per minute being sucked into the station’s cooling system through two giant tunnels.
If you take the public tour of Sizewell B, they tell you proudly that the Dome is bigger than that of St Paul’s Cathedral. But while the impression from any distance is religious, at first sight it is a mosque that Sizewell B suggests: the white of the Dome and the blue of the turbine hall; the broad and low proportions of the latter, like a prayer hall; and the tile-like cladding covering it all. The hulks of Sizewell A, next door, are a franker, more uncompromising presence. In The Rings of Saturn, as W.G. Sebald plods over Dunwich Heath, he sees the reactor building three miles south as a ‘glowering mausoleum’. A towering concrete block, like a vast windowless car park, it is more explicitly industrial than its successor. But it is the Dome of B that bears the symbolic burden: it has the function of an emblem, but what precisely that emblem signifies is complex and contested. When I first moved here – when the whole place was strange and I hardly knew north from south – it seemed as sinister, in the secrecy of its form, as an alien vessel or a giant egg erupted from the soil. But like any familiar landmark, after a while you come to regard it with something like affection, even if you recognise it for what it is: a blight.
‘There,’ says Noel, pointing to a rise of scrubland immediately to its north: ‘that’s where it’ll start.’
I send my partner a photo and she texts: ‘Like approaching Istanbul across the Bosporus!’
And it’s true. You can imagine, as you head shoreward, that you are coming into an ancient city, having travelled a great distance.
A certain rigour in Noel’s gait, even when we get back to his yard, suggests he is moving against a gradient. He doesn’t like to be too far from the beach, especially when he is on land. A modestly proprietorial presence in Sizewell village, he is usually found, when not at sea, in the yard next to his house on Sizewell’s front, from which he sells his catch direct, or on the beach attending to the Joseph William, or at the cafe, Sizewell Tea, which is run by his son.
Having lived here for more than fifty years, Noel has a unique relationship with the nuclear site. He was eleven when his family moved to the hamlet from a village eight miles inland, well outside the Sandlings. In those days there were half a dozen boats working off this beach. ‘I took my O levels and next day I started fishing. And that’s all I’ve ever done.’ Sitting in his kitchen, divested of his bib-and-braces, he reflects on recent events in the tone of someone expressing a conclusion he has reached only gradually and with reluctance.
‘I’ve got no axe to grind, but I do find that anti-nuclear people can be very aggressive.’
On a Sunday morning a few weeks earlier, the plain of rabbit-grazed grassland between the dunes and Sizewell B had filled with people. The dominant colours were the fluorescent yellow of the tabards the 600 participants had been asked to wear, and the red and yellow of the stop sizewell c logo, on flags and banners, which by now was familiar to anyone who lived in the area. Stepping between the crowd’s legs, a beautiful black whippet carried the same words on a sheet of paper ribboned to its flank. I watched the crowd gather from the top of a dune: the snaking line of DayGlo yellow bodies; the white of the Dome; the blue of the sky. The atmosphere didn’t really seem aggressive. Occasionally someone would slip from the line and dash over the dunes for a hidden pee, but before rejoining the hubbub they would halt for a moment to gaze out at the crashing waves. Even more than usual, the line of dunes marked the boundary between two worlds.
Before the end of the current parliament, in 2024, the government has pledged to approve funding for at least one new nuclear power station. It is an arresting fact that all of Britain’s eight functioning nuclear power stations are owned by the same company, EDF Energy, a subsidiary of Électricité de France, which in turn is majority owned by the French state. Although it has a monopoly on electricity production in France, EDF’s financial position has been precarious since the 2008 crash, and it declined further after the disaster at Fukushima, the Japanese nuclear power station that in 2011 was catastrophically damaged, releasing radioactivity into the atmosphere, as a consequence of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Last year, EDF’s debt rose to £34 billion, while its share price has almost halved in the past three years. Its CEO has admitted that without the UK, its most important export market, the nuclear industry in France would cease to be sustainable. In 2012, after a National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power identified eight sites in England and Wales, including Sizewell, where new nuclear power stations could be deployed by 2025, EDF submitted a proposal to build a pair of European pressurised-water reactors (EPR) alongside Sizewell B, which is due to be decommissioned no earlier than 2035.
The centrepiece of EDF’s export strategy, the EPR is a powerful advanced version of the standard pressurised-water reactor operating at Sizewell B, and in principle safer and more efficient. Of the four others in the world, however, only a pair at Taishan, China, has ever been commercially operative, and one of them was shut down in June 2021 due to a cracked fuel rod. The Olkiluoto 3 EPR in Finland was turned on in December 2021 after a twelve-year delay, but has yet to be connected to the national grid. In The Fall and Rise of Nuclear Power in Britain (2016), Simon Taylor describes the EPR as ‘one of the most complex objects ever built’, while Dr Paul Dorfman of UCL’s Energy Institute, interviewed in a documentary about EDF’s woes (The French Nuclear Trap, 2019), calls the EPR a ‘failed reactor’, which is ‘too complex to build on time or to cost’. Two are currently under construction by EDF at Hinkley Point C in Somerset, Britain’s first new nuclear power station since Sizewell B in 1995. It is running ten years late and at least £1.5 billion overbudget. The model for that project, EDF’s Flamanville 3, in France, is more than nine years late. The model for Sizewell C is to be Hinkley Point C.
In May 2020 EDF submitted its application for development consent to the government. By the company’s own reckoning, Sizewell C, which was to be part-funded by the state-owned China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN), would take up to twelve years to build, at a cost of £20 billion. A new bypass, link roads and roundabout would be needed for the 700 heavy-goods vehicles that would attend the construction zone each day, as well as a temporary railway extension, a loading jetty, and a campus to accommodate up to 2,400 of a peak workforce of nearly 8,000 (almost twice the population of Leiston). Almost 1,380 acres of the Sandlings and the surrounding countryside would be engulfed by the construction site, including a Site of Special Scientific Interest, while spoil heaps and cranes would be visible for miles.
Opponents say it would be a crime to build a third nuclear power station on this famously eroding coast. You only need to consider the North Sea Flood of 1953, which inundated the east coast, Scotland, the Netherlands and parts of Belgium, or for that matter Fukushima, whose backup generators failed after the site was flooded by a tsunami. A map produced by the US-based science journalism organisation Climate Central, marking land that is projected to be below annual flood level in 2050, shows EDF’s site largely surrounded by water, a nuclear island. Sizewell C, if it goes ahead, will operate until at least 2095 and take decades to decommission. Some of its stockpile of thousands of tonnes of spent fuel, meanwhile, will remain hazardously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Currently every pellet from Sizewell B’s spent assemblies is being stored onsite, in either cooling ponds or sealed canisters, with no plan for their removal.
In autumn 2021, as the protest took place at Sizewell, the six-month public examination into EDF’s application was nearing its end, leaving the five-person examining authority to consider its findings and make its recommendation to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. EDF says Sizewell C will ‘save 9 million tonnes of CO² emissions every year’ and that without nuclear power Britain will be unable to meet its commitment to reduce its carbon emissions by 100 per cent by 2050 (‘net zero’). Sizewell C, it says, will generate thousands of short- and long-term jobs and invest millions into the local economy. (In 2020, a new claim appeared in EDF’s regular community newsletter, posted through the door of local homes: ‘The project will be a welcome boost to the recovery of the East Anglian economy as we emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic.’) The company notes that the coastline at Sizewell has been relatively stable over the past 200 years, and insists the site will be protected from worst-case-scenario sea-level rises and storm surges. Indeed, the purpose of the protest that day was not to draw attention to the risk of inundation but to highlight the extent of the foreshore that would be obliterated by EDF’s planned coastal defences.
Participants were instructed to spread out along a line that marked the seaward perimeter of a massive revetment that would bury more than a square mile of the dunes and grassland under up to fourteen metres of rock, concrete and soil. Even in the sunshine it was possible to imagine the mass of earthworks towering over your head. But the mood that morning had not been gloomy; there were children playing tag and people who knew each other from yoga, and a few cheerful veterans from the campaign against Sizewell B.
‘I’ve seen all this with B,’ says Noel, who has been fishing off Sizewell since there was just one power station here. ‘All the same scenario.’
Press photos from a 1986 anti-Sizewell B march, which drew more than a thousand protesters to the village, suggest something more in keeping with the unionised industrial rallies of the time. Greenpeace activists in inflatable boats attached a banner to the outfall rig, reading vote out nuclear power, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament logo was ubiquitous. Postcards had been printed referencing a Ukrainian town nobody had heard of until six months earlier: sizewell – twinned with chernobyl. The global implications of that disaster were still emerging.
Noel had been more sympathetic back then. ‘We didn’t know what to think, really. It was a lot bigger than Sizewell A. But we went with it. And at the end of the day, yes we had a few problems. But you have to have something going on, on this island, don’t you? Some industry.’
The three groups that organised last week’s event, Stop Sizewell C, Together Against Sizewell C and Suffolk Coastal Friends of the Earth, had arranged overflow parking outside the village, and in emails urged participants to avoid trampling the delicate flora of the foreshore; but Noel felt overwhelmed. Inconsiderate parking was one thing; more objectionable was what seemed to him a sort of righteous sanctimony. ‘They were offhand, shall we say.’
Sizewell A was already there, newly operational, when he arrived as a boy; he watched as B was approved and slowly went up. Sizewell itself, he maintains, was not massively affected by the influx of temporary construction workers, even if Leiston, where many of them were billeted, was another matter. ‘They want women, they want drink and they want betting shops.’ (An insistent rumour has it that sex workers were bussed in from Lowestoft.) The one thing Noel regretted, ‘my biggest loss’, was that the marsh nearby, which had been leased historically to Leiston and District Wildfowlers Association, was handed to the adjoining RSPB Minsmere reserve, meaning he could no longer shoot there. He still likes to go out with his gun and his Labrador. The type who recoils at country sports is the same type, it seems to him, who banned the culling of seals (which take fish from his nets) and imposed quotas that make it virtually impossible for a lone fisherman to earn a living. ‘It’s all conservation, now. They want me in a picture postcard, but they don’t want me catching fish.’ He remembers a time when seals would vanish when they saw his boat; now they swim up to it.
Sometimes you’d think nuclear fission were an activity as indigenous to the area as growing beet or catching herring. At the launch of a public inquiry into a proposal for a gas-cooled nuclear-power station at Trawsfynydd, Wales, as long ago as 1958, objectors were outnumbered by people waving banners reading pylons before poverty. The slogans haven’t changed much. Addressing a Westminster Environment, Energy and Transport Forum in January 2021, Sizewell C’s Director of Financing showed a slide of one of Stop Sizewell C’s banners. It had been defaced, using spray paint, with what she told the audience was ‘a piece of quite nicely rhyming graffiti’, which apparently encapsulated ‘a lot of the debate about Sizewell C’: jobs not snobs.
Because Noel lives closer to the site than almost anyone, opponents of Sizewell C do tend to expect him to be an ally. ‘I might not say what you want me to say,’ he had warned me – but he could only speak as he found, even if some people didn’t like it. ‘They’ll say I’m irresponsible, ill-educated, bought-off; whatever. Whatever.’ But the people up at the station, whether they were the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), Nuclear Electric, British Energy or, now, EDF, have usually listened to him if he has any concerns. The armed Civil Nuclear Constabulary officers who patrol the beach 24/7 mean there is virtually no crime, and scientists come round every couple of months to test his catch and pass a Geiger counter over his lobster pots. Households within a kilometre of the site are issued with stable-iodine tablets to be taken in the event of a leak, to prevent the body absorbing radiation. But you learn not to worry. If and when C happens, he expects to be compensated for any temporary limitation to his fishing grounds, just as he was when B was built.
‘It’s still a wonderful place to live. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.’ The protesters were a bit like dinner guests who told you your neighbourhood was going to the dogs. ‘It’s quite strange when people have moved to this area in the last ten years, people with money, people who could afford to buy a house anywhere in the country . . . You’ve already got A and B here. If this is such a shit area, why would somebody with all that money move here? Sizewell C has been coming ever since Sizewell B was finished.’