Power to the people

Douglas Blane finds the full story of nuclear power in the most unexpected of places - the Sellafield Visitors Centre

Inside Europe's first Immersion Cinema, three rows of young people sit enthralled by the multi-media show, while a computer program enables the theatre itself to gather their responses through touch-screens at their sides. From this analysis, the unfolding story takes shape. The topic is energy, the single most important issue facing the modern world.

Today this is simulation. Tomorrow it could be reality, with major decisions taken by ordinary people using knowledge that has been brought to life by advanced technology. The event is Sparking Reaction, a new exhibition devised by the Science Museum, London. The location is the Visitors Centre at Sellafield, West Cumbria.

It is a name rich with unpleasant associations - dangerous radioactivity, immense power that is barely controlled, waste that could still be a hazard in 1,000 years. Few groups face such a hostile press as the nuclear industry, so at the heart of that industry you might expect an exhibition to redress the balance. But the most remarkable aspect of this wholly remarkable exhibition is that it confounds all expectations: this is nuclear energy warts and all.

In the main hall outside the theatre, visitors can re-enact events at Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, where one dark morning operators began a reckless experiment on an old reactor, lost control, and caused the worst nuclear accident the world has yet seen.

They can hear about accidents and incidents at Sellafield and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. They can learn about vain attempts to cover up problems and preserve the industry's pristine image as a clean energy source that would make the deserts bloom. It does not take too much of this for even the most unreflective to wonder what is going on: has the nuclear industry lost the will to live? Has Sellafield been infiltrated by environmental activists? Well no, but the truth is almost equally interesting.

BNFL paid for the exhibition and provided the space to locate it in its Visitors Centre. It then stepped back and let the Science Museum take complete control. "I was kept informed as the work progressed," explains project manager Tony Harrison. "But not one word in the exhibition came from me or anyone else at BNFL." He pauses reflectively. "You can maybe imagine how easy that was." It cannot have been easy at all - either for Mr Harrison or his board of directors. To let the facts about nuclear energy speak for themselves, without imparting any spin, must have seemed a policy fraught with danger to old hands in the industry. But it is a highly imaginative idea that deserves to succeed in its educational aim.

"At the heart of the contract we signed with BNFL is the principle that all decisions - present and future - about the content of the exhibition are taken by us," explains the Science Museum's Andy Lloyd. "We consulted very widely, since we wanted to present all sides of the energy debate. Then we designed the exhibits, the theatre, the website, and the computer software that pulls it all together and lets it evolve in response to events in the outside world and the Visitors Centre."

Besides the interactive theatre, where participants build all kinds of power stations in all sorts of places, then explore their environmental impact, the exhibits include games that combine fun and education, and focus on energy production, global warming, the nature of risk, and the hard choices that will have to be made in the coming decade.

The exhibits include computer terminals that let older children and adults explore facts and opinions in depth. They include artefacts, creatively chosen and displayed, ranging from turbine blades and reactor components to a fearsome old mangle that was once part of the back-breaking labour of washing day.

And they include perhaps the most imaginative part of the whole exhibition - The Core. In this central area old-fashioned text comes to the fore, and hundreds of quotations from experts and ordinary people bring fleeting life to large, dark surfaces: words drip like paint or flash like lightning. They jostle and jumble together. They follow each other across the floor, while the children of visiting families dance among them, and a laughing girl in a wheelchair chases the thoughts of Albert Einstein, the man who launched the nuclear age: "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything I" A last word of advice for first-time visitors: main roads in the west of the Lake District are good, if winding, but tourist routes often dwindle to single tracks among high places, where dozy sheep and locals in fast cars are the only companions. The risks from radioactivity around Sellafield may have been exaggerated, but danger on the roads, like everywhere else in Britain, is ever present.

Douglas Blane is a former theoretical physicist and physics and maths teacher

CONTACTS

The tie-in website at www.sparkingreaction.info provides a wealth of educational resources linked to key stages 2 to 4, and aimed at science, geography, English, history and citizenship. Access to these downloadable resources and to the exhibition are free. The Visitors Centre at Sellafield has an education room, a cafe and a secure room for children's bags and coats. Schools are advised to book in advance.

Tel: 01946 727027

Fax: 01946 727021

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