A while ago I came across Charles Stross’s account of visiting the AGR power station at Torness (not far from Edinburgh). Coincidentally, EDF recently opened a visitor’s centre there and now runs tours of the plant. I went on a visit recently and this is my account of what’s there. It’s worth a trip if you can make it; it only takes 90 minutes and only costs a photocopy of your passport (if you’re British). Sadly, the tour isn’t as involved as the one Charles Stross described, but it’s good fun nonetheless.
Public image seems to be the forefront of the tour. From the visitor’s centre and right through the tour, the virtues of nuclear power are prominently featured. Interestingly enough, the start of this campaign includes a video of a nuclear waste transit container surviving a collision with an ill-fated train (“this is a controlled test”, as the subtitle in the video helpfully adds).
The interesting part starts at a security gate, where you’re given a badge, checked for any verboten items (cameras, USB sticks, firearms) and pass through a secure turnstile. Once on-site the tour starts through a small glass building that leads, via a glass walled walkway into the main building.
Once inside the large building, the tour starts at a board showing Torness’ history, from its foundations to EDF’s latest mascot (whose name is Zingy). Emphasis on safety is paramount throughout the tour, starting with warnings on the use of handrails for stairs, walking with hands in pockets and untied shoelaces. Beyond the timeline, the entrance to the charge hall, and the extensive checks on dosage and material leakage are highlighted. Past a muster point stocked with potassium iodide and personal dosimeters, the tour begins, via an elevator and a bright red door that raises an alarm if held open for more than 15 seconds.
Viewing decks cover three of the main parts of the site. The first takes you over into the vast charge hall, overlooking the reactors, the spent fuel storage chamber and the fuel disposal chute. It’s not immediately clear why the hall is so large but this is clarified by the scale of the green “monster”; the machine, tasked with assembling fuel assemblies and loading them into the reactors.
Some corridors that wouldn’t look out of place in a 70s school building lead to a viewing area overlooking the control room. Decked out appropriately with a plethora of buttons, gauges and dials, the control room itself looks similarly dated (although well-maintained) — mostly down to the cream colour of the panels.
Red carpets in the control room mark out the areas where a button might find itself accidentally pushed. Sitting atop the two reactor control desks are several monitors showing old HMIs for the plant’s SCADA systems, complete with limited colour palette and cyan-on-black text. A common offender sits amongst these panels: Windows XP and Excel
The final stop on the tour is a gallery overlooking the cavernous turbine hall, showcasing the two blue GEC generator and turbine units. The noise emitted by these things is quite ferocious, even after attenuation by the glass.
The most interesting part of the tour was how clean the building is; this is to make spotting anomalies a little easier. The dated decor is also something to behold. It makes an interesting contrast — the building’s in great shape despite its obvious age. Like other AGRs (except the one at Sellafield), Torness will probably see its lifetime extended. As it stands, a lot of the technology at Torness is “obsolete”, down to the use of Windows XP in the control room. Despite that, it still produces electricity that powers approximately 2.5 million homes.
To top off the spectacular tour, the staff there are all friendly, not just those in the visitor’s centre.