VISITOR CENTRES REVISITED
Three years ago the award-winning, innovative and much admired Sellafield Visitors Centre was shut down – damned as unnecessary and a drain on the taxpayer by the Government-owned site operator, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). Coincidentally EDF Energy, with a majority French Government shareholding, began to build Visitor Centres at all of its nuclear power station sites in the UK. It now has seven of them and regards them as essential, effective and value for money.
I have a personal interest in these diametrically opposed points of view. The Sellafield Visitors Centre, opened 28 years ago, was very much my baby. Then as now I was convinced of the importance of public information as a means of winning and maintaining support for nuclear energy. This will be absolutely vital as we enter the period of nuclear renaissance promised by today’s Government.
Sellafield, which dominates the West Cumbrian coastline and its economy, is the most controversial of all the nuclear sites in the UK. Most of the country’s spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste is handled there. So what on earth possessed the NDA, prompted by its then private sector contractor, to close the Visitors Centre, just as the country’s nuclear energy programme looked set to take off?
Sellafield is central to the success of that programme and must retain public support, locally and nationally. The Visitors Centre was the outward sign of an industry keen to explain itself and to set out its environmental and economic credentials as the country moved to eliminate the use of fossil fuels for electricity generation.
To emphasise the nonsense of the Sellafield Visitors Centre being allowed to stand idle NuGen plans to build three new nuclear reactors at Moorside, on land to the north and west of the Sellafield site, and – you’ve guessed it – to include a Visitors Centre on the site. Perhaps the NDA and NuGen should get together.
YES SIR, THAT’S MY BABY
A media myth has it that the late Sir Christopher Harding was responsible for the Sellafield Visitors Centre concept and its associated advertising programme. That is simply not true and I never heard him make such a claim. BNFL had a small Visitors Centre long before Sir Christopher arrived on the scene and the £3 million television and Press advertising spend which he persuaded the Board to accept was actually developed while Con Allday, his predecessor as Chairman of British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), was still in office.
What Sir Christopher did was to persuade Board colleagues to back an unprecedented level of expenditure for a State owned company on public information advertising, despite his own misgivings. He also convinced them that it was worth spending on a spanking new Visitors Centre to replace a tiny one. He deserves great credit for all of that.
But let’s be clear. Con Allday was ready to agree the advertising scheme I’d put to him but the Government got rid of him to make room for Sir Christopher before he could do so. Con decided, correctly in my view, that it would be more appropriate for my proposal to go to a Board meeting chaired by his successor and it was approved at Sir Christopher’s first Board meeting as Chairman. I had prepared the ground well.
A couple of months before Sir Christopher took up his new appointment I briefed him at length on the planned advertising. He told me he liked the ideas behind the campaign but was clearly nervous about launching it and questioned how confident I was that it would work. I told him that we had tested the advertising extensively through focus groups and that I was ready to put my reputation on the line. “Okay Harold, but if things go wrong, on your head be it”, was his response.
We had tested advertisements which sought to explain the benefits of nuclear energy and others which discussed the risks, trying to put them in the context of everyday risks, and they simply didn’t work. After a series of minor releases of radioactive material on site our credibility was so low that nobody believed what we said. The only message which did register favourably with our test audiences was one which invited people to go to Sellafield to see what went on there for themselves. That turned out to be fortuitous.
To a considerable extent the nature and subject of the launch commercial for television was dictated by the then regulator, the Independent Broadcasting Authority. The IBA’s code of advertising standards and practices at that time stated that “no advertisements may be inserted by or on behalf of any body, the objects of which are wholly or mainly of a political nature and no advertisement may be directed towards a political end”.
The IBA took the view that a company producing fuel for nuclear power stations and dealing with it when it came out of the reactors had a political objective.
It was ridiculous, particularly when the IBA was prepared to allow the Conservative Government of the day to use TV advertising to promote the privatisation of whole swathes of State-owned industry. If that’s not political advertising what is?
It took our advertising agents over a year to persuade the IBA to change its position but eventually it came out with a new edict. To meet its rules advertising must be associated with the sale of products and should not be used to influence attitudes, the IBA said. As BNFL didn’t have a product, which was for general sale, it would not be allowed on television.
THE SELLAFIELD DENTISTS
But BNFL did have a product which was generally available to the general public – the small visitors centre perched on the upper floor of the Sellafield site dental surgery which I had managed to get built when I first joined BNFL It was a tourist attraction of sorts – and other tourist attractions were being advertised on television. Game, set and match! The IBA could wriggle no more. It accepted the advertising approach we had wanted all along.
The launch commercial was to the point. Against a backdrop of the Cumbrian countryside, beautifully filmed, an open invitation was extended to people to visit the existing and somewhat pathetic exhibition hall on top of the dental surgery. This was accompanied by Press advertisements containing a similar message. Everything was in place for the launch when the Chernobyl disaster occurred.
After a great deal of agonising we launched the campaign six weeks after Chernobyl, despite some pressure for delay from inside and outside the company. I convinced Sir Christopher, still a relatively new Chairman, that because of the disaster in the Ukraine members of the public wanted more than ever before to understand nuclear energy. Once again his approval was qualified – he would support my decision to launch the campaign as long as I realised that if anything went wrong I would take the blame. I agreed.
Sir Christopher Harding was an ideal Chairman for BNFL at that stage of its development, moving easily among the movers and shakers of Whitehall and in the local communities around BNFL’s sites, particularly Sellafield. He even managed to get some sections of the media to listen to the nuclear message.
The TV campaign succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The number of visitors increased dramatically from just under 30,000 visitors in 1985 to 65,000 a year later. By 1987, the first full year of advertising, the figure had reached 104,000 and the tiny Visitors centre over the dental surgery was bursting at the seams. At the weekends we had people queuing to get in.
The simple concept of inviting people to see Sellafield for themselves did far more for BNFL than demonstrate that the company wanted to rid itself of its reputation for secrecy, although we know from research that it did very well in that respect.
The important thing was not how many people actually went up to Sellafield, which is not very accessible, but that most of the population knew that they could go there. Its magic is still working. Although the Sellafield Visitors Centre has been shut for more than three years I still meet people who think it’s open.
We also found that the television advertisement carried a subliminal message on safety which we hadn’t anticipated. People began to say that Sellafield must be safe or BNFL wouldn’t have dared to invite people to see the site – a positive message that any operator would be pleased to have secured.
With visitors pouring up to Sellafield expecting something special we clearly had to do something about that small exhibition centre. In May 1987 I received Board permission to build a new Sellafield Visitors Centre at a cost of £5 million, this time with the whole hearted support of Sir Christopher Harding. It was opened by HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in June 1988. The number of visitors soared to 160,000 the following year and in 1989 the Centre and BNFL’s overall “open and honest” public information programme won the top Institute of Public Relations award, the Sword of Excellence.
Five years ago I expressed the view that it was doubtful if any group managing Sellafield – and there have been more than enough management changes – would ever be able to shut the Visitors Centre down because of its “open and honest” symbolism. How wrong I was. A couple of years after making that statement the shutters went up.
The blame was put on the cost of the Centre. As the local newspaper put it at the time, over the years – 24 years to be precise – “some £16 million of taxpayers’ money has been lavished on the Centre”. Note the word “lavished”.
PULLING THE PLUG
According to the NDA, which took back responsibility for the management of the Sellafield site from the privately owned Nuclear Management Partners (NMP) recently falling visitor numbers were at the core of the closure decision. It seems that NMP had considered keeping the Centre going but the North West Development Agency withdrew some financial support and that was that.
From its opening in 1988 to its eventual closure in 2011 the Centre attracted two and a half million visitors and NDA accepts that it brought economic benefit to a hard-pressed region.
However, costs associated with salaries, security, cleaning and maintenance totalled just over £620,000 a year and there were further one-off costs associated with specific packages of work between 2006 and 2011 which amounted to just over £98,000.
As far as I can see no account was taken of the revenue from the restaurant and gift shop on the site or the benefit to hoteliers, local shops and restaurants from the tourists attracted to that part of West Cumbria from the better known areas of the Lake District to a part of the county more in need of support. Then there was the abortive spend on trying to turn the Visitor Centre into a business cum conference centre.
Putting that to one side let’s look at the cost of dealing with high, medium and low radioactive materials at Sellafield. Surely its activities, set to expand, need all the local and national support and understanding that the State-owned NDA can get.
Its latest business plan shows that the NDA will spend £1.9 billion (that’s £1,900 million remember) on the Sellafield site’s activities in the current financial year.
A spend of substantially less than one million pounds a year doesn’t strike me as particularly “lavish” in that context and it will do next to nothing to reduce Sellafield’s enormous costs. A tiny drop in a very large ocean is a fair description. As far as I’m concerned the comparatively miniscule spend on the upkeep of the Visitors Centre was eminently worthwhile and a majority of local people think it still is, as I do.
The problem seems to be that the NDA does not regard itself as being in the business of promoting nuclear energy, even though it is an integral part of the industry. If it gets things wrong – and that must include losing public support and local goodwill – it could bring the industry down.
I accept that it has to fight the Government for any finance it can get. Decommissioning costs have soared over the years as the problem of getting rid of old, often leaky, nuclear plants has been kicked into the long grass by successive governments, making the task of dealing with them eventually infinitely worse.
In these straitened times the Government is highly unlikely to authorise peripheral expenditure, however small. To put it bluntly, as things stand there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance of the Sellafield Visitors Centre being reopened – ever.
When the closure decision was taken Councillor David Moore, Chairman of the West Cumbria Stakeholders Group, an independent body which includes representatives from local government, regulators, trade unions and community groups, was particularly scathing.
“It’s a crying shame”, Councillor Moore said,” and a loss to the community. This is a valuable resource which sadly has been left to die. It is still the ideal place to promote nuclear at a critical time for the industry with a new power station on the cards and also as a tourist destination bringing people into West Cumbria. It must present opportunities for the private sector to get involved, to showcase for the public what can happen to nuclear new build and a vision for the future.
“Since its heyday the Centre may have been losing money but it has been immeasurable in what it has done for Sellafield and nuclear. It could do the same again.”
Defending its decision to keep the Sellafield Visitors Centre closed, the site’s owners, NDA, pointed out to me earlier this month that it has an exhibition in the centre of Whitehaven. It’s housed in the Beacon Centre in the centre of Whitehaven and is partly used by the local authority for historical and tourist information. The Authority clearly thinks that’s good enough. Not for me it isn’t.
A BEACON SHEDDING LITTLE LIGHT
For a start the Beacon is tiny by comparison with the Sellafield Visitors Centre – even smaller than the exhibition housed on a single floor over the dental surgery – and there’s no mention of any sort of nuclear display there on the Beacon website. That’s hardly the way to pull in visitors interested in nuclear energy. The Sellafield site is also nearly 12 miles away from the centre of Whitehaven – somewhat tortuous miles – and the whole point of the Visitors Centre was that people could go there, look out over the site and have its various functions explained to them.
They could even, by prior arrangement, take bus tours round the site. The NDA position appears to be that such tours had to be halted because of a potential terrorist threat. That doesn’t seem to have deterred EDF, which includes the possibility of site tours for people making their way to its seven Visitor Centres.
Although it is now EDF Energy which leads the way with the construction and operation of visitor centres it was British Energy, the company it bought to get into the UK market, which decided that there was no place for them. At the end of the 1990s the UK’s civil nuclear power companies, inspired by the success of the Sellafield Visitors Centre, boasted a wealth of centres, meeting the needs of anyone interested in finding out more about what nuclear energy was all about. Ten years later, at the turn of the century, some genius decided to phase out all ofBritish Energy’s visitor centres and to focus on electronic communications. You can’t beat questioning a computer I suppose, if you’re so minded, but that doesn’t compare with the hands on operation of a geiger counter or starting up a working model of a reactor, all by yourself.
Having bought British Energy, EDF Energy decided that visitor centres were a must after all. It now has them up and running at or near Dungeness, Heysham, Hinkley Point, Sizewell, Hartlepool, Hunterston and Torness, all of them reactor sites underpinned by the services provided by Sellafield. They are attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year once more.
The majority of them are on visits organised for schools and educational group, the generation which will grow up with an expanding nuclear energy industry and which needs to understand it and approve of it for perfectly valid environmental as well as energy generation reasons.
EDF Energy’s Chief Executive, Vincent de Rivaz, understands that if the NDA does not. He has said that his company has long recognised the importance of openness and transparency in its nuclear and retail business and that visitor centres are a significant part of the company’s engagement with the public.
EDF has just welcomed its 10,000th visitor to its Visitor Centre in the centre of Bridgwater, some four miles from the Hinkley Point B site, since opening its doors a year ago. Not bad going by any means, although I would have liked to have seen the Visitors Centre placed closer to the edge of the site, where Hinkley Point C will hopefully be built.
Nevertheless, during its first year the Hinkley Point visitor centre team has organised 116 external group visits to Hinkley Point B, including over 2,350 people. The Visitors Centre has also hosted events involving school groups, community organisations and local emergency services. A successful first year then, on which EDF Energy can build.
Talking of building on things, there may yet be a sort of Sellafield Visitors Centre, even if it’s not the one that’s standing idle. As I’ve said NuGen has already stated that it intends to have a Visitors Centre at Moorside, adjacent to Sellafield. Wouldn’t it make sense to have a joint facility which could make the case not only for nuclear electricity generation but for the vital work which the State-owned NDA does to support it just up the road?
The case for that has been strengthened by Westinghouse’s decision to open a new UK office in West Cumbria on the Westlakes Science Park on the edge of Whitehaven, a development which I steered through the BNFL Board in 1989. In discussion with the local authorities in that part of the county I came to the conclusion that Copeland (the local authority which contains Whitehaven and the Sellafield site) should to have more opportunities for scientific research.
That’s how it has developed, although it’s taken longer than I had hoped. Westinghouse’s decision to set up an office at Westlakes is important in itself and as a sign that the company, once owned by British Nuclear Fuels and sold off to Toshiba despite oppostion from the BNFLBoard at the Treasury’s behest (for which read instruction), recognises the importance of what is happening in West Cumbria.
Three Westinghouse AP1000 reactors are to be built by NuGEn at Moorside, if all goes well, so the company already has a substantial stake in West Cumbria. In the future, as the Moorside project gathers pace the Westinghouse presence in the area will be absolutely vital, according to Dave Unsworth, Westinghouse vice president and managing director UK, Middle East and Egypt. “This is a long-term commitment for decades to come.”
Apart from the Moorside connection Westinghouse is also in the business of servicing the existing decommissioning and remediation contracts which it has
with Sellafield Limited, part of NDA, and others it hopes to get. Taken together the expanding Westinghouse business makes the positioning of a new office at Westlakes a wise move.
Mr. Unsworth said of the Westlakes decision: “We have long had an ambition to open an office in West Cumbria and we believe that the time is right for us to do this. We are incredibly proud of the contracts we have won from Sellafield Ltd., where we are bringing our global decomissioning and remediation capability to help tackle some of the high hazard challenges on the site”.
Westinghouse was most recently part of the team that made history by transferring the first sludge from the first generation Magnox storage pond at Sellafield to a new £240 million state-of-the-art sludge storage plant.
With so much going on what about a tripartite Sellafield Visitors Centre, involving the NDA, NuGen and Westinghouse, with the three companies sharing the costs?
I know just the place for it – and it’s available.