Power to the pupils

24th June 2005 at 01:00
Energy resources are high on the political agenda. Deedee Cuddihy sees how the demise of a nuclear station sparks new interest in the next generation

Over the course of half-a-century, Chapelcross nuclear power station near Annan has employed thousands of people, from the time building started on the site of the former RAF base in 1955, to the station's decommissioning, which began earlier this year.

An exhibition at Annan Museum to mark The Life and Times of Chapelcross Station has helped children to catch a glimpse of the human side of the industry.

Neil McGarva, who started at Chapelcross in 1975 as an apprentice electrician and is now a reactor supervisor, assisted museum curator Anne Ramsbottom. His father and brother both worked at the station and Mr McGarva will stay on until the decommissioning is complete.

"The station has run for 25 years more than was originally planned," he says. "In that time, it's generated enough electricity to power every home in Dumfries and Galloway for 200 years.

"But it's been operating on 1950s technology. The equipment became obsolete and we couldn't get spares. And, as a manually operated station, it needs hundreds of people to run it, against a handful at a modern plant, so it is no longer cost-effective."

Mr McGarva was at the museum during a dedicated education week when primary schools visited the exhibition and took part in science workshops run by staff from the visitor centre at Sellafield nuclear power station.

Run by British Nuclear Fuel, the visitor centre provides a comprehensive nuclear energy education service. About 300 schools visited last year, including some from Scotland; many more used its online educational resources. The education programme is aimed mainly at the 5-14 curriculum, with information for the youngest pupils focused not on nuclear energy, but on electricity and forces.

The idea behind Annan Museum's exhibition was to outline the history of Scotland's first nuclear power station and to honour the people who have made up what has been referred to as the Chapelcross family, explains Ms Ramsbottom.

Children were allowed to try the computers used at the power station to train staff to detect and deal with problems in the system. A notice which used to hang on the wall of the training room says: "Amateurs practise so they can get it right. Professionals practise so that nothing goes wrong.

We're professionals."

A dressing-up box of uniforms included boiler suits (marked "CX"), helmets, face masks and shoe coverings. Standing at attention in the museum was Atomic Bob, a mannequin dressed in the kind of protective clothing that employees at Chapelcross would have worn when working in a contamination area.

Among dozens of photographs of power station staff enjoying social activities, there were other reminders of the dangers of the business of energy production. A display case showed the types of personal radiation monitors that Chapelcross employees would have worn and how their design has changed over the years.

One photograph of a man in rubber boots shovelling sand actually shows an early instance of the regular sampling that takes place on the beach near Chapelcross where the power station's outflow pipe is located.

Children from Tundergarth Primary, 10 miles from Annan, were among those who took part in the science workshops. A school of only 31 pupils, divided into two classes, sent its P4s-P7s with teacher Nancy Macfarlane.

Two women from the Sellafield visitors centre carried out a range of simple and well-known science experiments using household products such as tea lights, vinegar and baking soda. All the children got the chance to be volunteer assistants, which involved wearing a Sellafield lab coat and goggles. In a final exercise, the pupils turned the handle of a simple generator in an attempt to power up to four tiny light bulbs.

Although Mrs Macfarlane had expected the workshops to focus on nuclear power, she said her class had been delighted with their experience.

"We used to go to Chapelcross when they ran their education tours," she added, "but of course those have now stopped."

As well as supporting the museum exhibition, the power station also funded an arts project for local schools to mark the end of the Chapelcross era.

Artist Hugh Bryden, who is the cultural co-ordinator for Dumfries and Galloway, and writer Mary Smith worked with S1 and S2 pupils at Annan Academy over two days to produce handmade mini books inspired by the station's massive cooling towers.

"The towers have been a significant part of the landscape in this area for almost 50 years," Mr Bryden explained. "People have said they have a fondness for them because, if you've been away, you know you're almost home when they come into view."

Once the towers are down, however, local people will be able to get their bearings by looking out for the power-producing wind turbines, whose elegant shapes are already making their presence felt in the area.


* The Life and Times of Chapelcross Nuclear Power Station, Annan Museum, Dumfries and Galloway, finishes tomorrow. An illustrated booklet based on the exhibition is available from the museum, tel 01461 201384

* Dounreay Nuclear Power Plant, near Thurso, has also been decommissioned but the visitor centre remains open. Tel 01847 802572

* Sellafield Visitors Centre, Seascale, Cumbria, tel 01946 727027

* Educational websites: www.bnfl.comwww.go-experimental.com

Schools can also visit hydro-electric stations.

* The Hollow Mountain, Cruachan Power Station, Dalmally, Argyll.

Deep within Ben Cruachan is the world's first high level reversible pumped storage hydro scheme. Underground tours into the machine hall explain how it was constructed and how it operates. Tel 01866 822618www.visit.cruachan@scottishpower.com

* Scottish Hydro Electric Visitor Centre, Pitlochry, Perthshire.

See how the hydro generation schemes were built and how Scottish and Southern Energy has developed its generation portfolio over the past 60 years.

The centre features interactive exhibits tracing the history of hydro generation in Scotland from its origins in the 1940s to its current pound;250 million refurbishment programme. It is also possible to design your own power station and find out how to help the environment by saving energy. Tel 01796 473152 www.scottishsouthern.co.ukssegroupvisitorcentre

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