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I suppose that, on a visit to a nuclear power station, every journalist harbours a sneaky, rather weird desire for some kind of incident to break out just at that moment. The sweaty signs of rising panic, the flashing lights, the official denials. The kind of cover-up that James Bridges’ film The China Syndrome, about a TV crew that surreptitiously films a near-disaster, captured so intensely. That film was released just days before a real meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear generator in Pennsylvania in 1979. It captured perfectly a 1970s paranoia, just as Alan J Pakula’s The Parallax View had five years earlier.
But, of course, most journalists are never that lucky. Or unlucky. There was a brief fire alarm on the day I visited the Sizewell B power station on England’s Suffolk coast. But it was a test. Touring the plant, I became slightly excited to see a door marked “Outage War Room” so I asked the manager, Martin Cubitt, about it. “Oh yes,” he said. “I think that was from when there was more of an American influence.” What’s in there? I asked. “It’s just a room,” he said. “It’s now called ‘Conference Room 4.’ ” It was one of those days.
Of course, despite my slight disappointment, boring is exactly what we want from our nuclear power plants. Boring — and safe — is good. Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island: if we know the names of nuclear power stations, it is almost certainly for the wrong reason. Our culture is saturated with images of nuclear disaster. The nightmarish remains of the explosion in the Ukrainian city of Chernobyl in 1986, the shattered concrete of the power station and the deserted, now eerily overgrown streets of its nearest town, Pripyat, have become the common currency of “ruin porn”. One image frequently used is that of Pripyat’s amusement park, which had been due to be inaugurated on May 1 1986 but was abandoned when disaster struck its nuclear neighbour on April 26. In the images, torn and fading decorations still flutter in the wind. […]