ESSAY Philippa HollowayNWR Issue 111
Power in the Land?
There is a choice of two bridges to access Ynys Môn: Telford’s suspension bridge, which provided the first road access, or the later, starker structure of the Britannia Bridge, whose square for- tifications provide a quicker route over the Straits for cars and trains. Either way the view is spectacular – regardless of the weather you will be able to see ancient rock formations and for- ests, the ever-changing surface of the sea, and the architecture that has opened up the island for commerce, tourism and travel. When driving between the mainland and the island I usually choose Britannia Bridge. Not for the ease of the commute, but because of the pylons. Because it is not only the bridges that link the island to the edge of Snowdonia and the inland communities, but the power it produces.
Ask most people what they think of the pylons that tower beside the bridge and echo across the island to their mothership, Wylfa nuclear power station, and they will either tell you they hadn’t noticed them or reflect for a moment and describe how they ruin the view. I admit, until a few years ago, my response would have been the same. A moment of quiet contemplation in which the repeated images of their geometric angles against the greens, blues, greys and golden lights of the trees, water and sky are drawn into the realms of conscious thought, are refocused, and a response forms. Perhaps this is why I am drawn to them. They have existed on the periphery of my vision, something you can see through, something so rooted in the earth they might as well be another genus of tree growing within and beside the forests they transect. They have always been there in my experience of this journey, and yet until recently I have barely noticed them.
But now I can’t stop seeing them.
One early November morning last year, a shawl of heavy cloud draped around the shoulders of Snowdonia behind me, I drove across the bridge and found each steel strand beside me illuminated by the sunrise, the threads as they dipped and soared between the outstretched arms of the pylons silver and gold like spiders’ silk trailing away into the distance. I followed, losing them as the road twisted away, catching sight again as their Eiffel tower echo led me towards their source. They took me past the slow rotating arms of white windturbines, past fallow fields churned into black ridges and scattered with seagulls, past gates with signs held in place by twists of wire: ‘no pylons’ or ‘no turbines’. Hand-painted, defiant. The energy island was at a cross roads. Wylfa was due to close. Jobs had already been culled, but plans to build a replacement plant sit in the pipeline. Land has been acquired and the blueprints for the new network of power- lines are under consultation. People have noticed.
That day I was travelling to meet a group of artists exploring the relationship between the landscape and the nuclear industry, the Power in the Land collaboration. Its instigator, Helen Grove- White, lives close to Wylfa, and her view of the countryside beyond the border of her garden is dissected by the clean lines of the pylons. She tells me she can hear them humming like a swarm of electric bees amongst the trees.
As a child I grew up in a small mining community in England, the pit wheels on the hillsides as stark an image as the pylons here. While nuclear power has been providing energy in the UK since the Calder Hall plant opened at Windscale in 1956, my own early childhood was oblivious to the nuclear age. I knew about coal though: the blackened faces of the miners, the risk of lung dis- eases, the fear and anger at pit closures during the 1980s. I can still recall the sound of the siren from Silverhill colliery when there was an incident. And even though my grandfather and father had overground jobs with the company, I imagined the men in there, underground, trapped, crushed and choking in the black dust, and waited to overhear the news from my parents.
Energy was something buried deep, dirty treasure men toiled to seek. It came from a physical relationship with the land; digging, tunnelling, hacking out the black gold and hauling it up and out. Diesel trains pulled hundreds of open carriages heaped with coal across the countryside I played in. Power was made by burning it, creating dirt and smoke and more lung disease. I saw images of the power stations on the television, reports of pollution, thick smoke obscuring the clean horizons.
As an adult living near Wylfa my concerns are different, in flux. I read that nuclear power is clean and safe, and in over forty years of service there has never been a significant safety issue at Wylfa. I’ve seen steam vented from the station, dissipating into clear skies, and men and women finish their shifts the same colour as they started them. Reports published by the World Nuclear Association show that the number of accidents and deaths from the fossil fuel industry is immense compared with those from the nuclear industry, and that is before deaths from air pollution are added to the calculations. I look across the farmland at the spindly white arms of the wind turbines, the delicate frames of the pylons and the square hulk of Wylfa and breathe clean air. I genuinely don’t know what to think.
At Helen’s house I met some of the X–10 artists. In an outbuilding that is now her studio we discussed their work, the particular aspects of the topic that they are exploring through media including film, sound, visual art and sculpture. I sensed some common themes emerging. Notions of visibility are high on the list. Helen described the security surrounding the station, the guards who stopped them as they walked near the perimeter, who insisted on seeing the photographs they were taking to ensure there was nothing that, shared online or emailed to the wrong person, could be a risk to national security. It is strictly forbidden to photograph the fencing surrounding the site, but Helen has found a way around this. Soaking paper in a mixture of ammonium iron(III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide and holding the sheets against the security fencing in strong sunlight, she creates cyanotypes (see previous page), startling Prussian blue images, or blue-prints, of the fencing.
Her decision for using this method of photography comes from more than defiance of the rules. Prussian blue was used to counteract the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl that drifted across Europe in the spring of 1986 and settled on the farmland and mountain grazing sites across Snowdonia. The grass was sprayed blue, and when the sheep grazed on their newly coloured landscape, the dye would bind to caesium in the gut and help it pass safely through their digestive system.
Helen’s pictures are spectral, the lattice work of fences and pale strands of grass emerging from a blue bright as the skies we all long for. They encompass the extremes of our feelings towards radiation: the images are printed using ultraviolet light, invisible electromagnetic radiation from the sun which has enough energy to cause electrons to break away from their atoms and form new chemical bonds. When creating cyanotypes this process produces the colour blue, but exposure to high levels of UV light on human skin can cause DNA damage, sunburn and potentially skin cancer. They are at once beautiful and disquieting.
We walked from a small carpark just outside the main entrance to the site, up through trees and under pylons, to the official observation platform that grants an almost backstage view of the buildings and security fencing around the reactors. Standing this close, the low roar and hum of the plant competes with the repeated crash of the sea on the rocks below and the wind that makes the trees sing. The white noise makes you dizzy.
One of the artists, Tim Skinner, pointed out how the colours of the coastline and sea are mirrored in the paintwork of the buildings. Just as the beauty of pylons, through a careful awakening of my senses to their form and placement in the landscapes around me, became something consciously noted, so too did the previously monstrous building before me refocus into something new and in tune with its setting. I saw it swim in and out of focus: the black coastal rocks, their yellow lichen and the pale green of tiny, hardy plants clinging to them, seemed like reflections of the structure, as if it had shuddered and shed its colours over the landscape it inhabits. The silver grey of the sea loomed into the sky on the curved walls of the reactor towers. This new way of looking at the building confused my senses, my conscious and subconscious processing of it in opposition. The building is wearing camouflage, is hiding in full view amongst the rocks and waving grasses. While it’s impossible to hide a massive nuclear power plant on the edge of coastline designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (it would be like a person curling up on the beach below us and trying to be a pebble), it seems you can tune it in to its surrounding landscape.
Tim’s artistic response, the film 'Camouflage Stain' (see page 1 & previous page), inverts this notion of disguise. On the group’s website he states, ‘If the plant doesn’t want to be seen then why should I film it?’ So instead he focusses on the landscape facing away from the site, the countryside which holds the original claim to the shades on the buildings. Its presence is implied, behind us, colouring the landscape rather than being coloured by it. The effect is sinister and soothing, rather like standing upon the view- ing platform and feeling the earth and plant vibrate around you in slightly different keys as the tones and shade of rocks, water, metal and concrete all merge.
These colours also feature heavily in Chris Oakley’s film, Fata Morgana, in which film footage is presented in mirage effect, the colours of the landscape and the power station merging and wav- ing, all as fluid as my own response to the nuclear industry. I don’t know if what I see is beautiful or ugly, dangerous or safe, all I know is it raises more questions than there are answers.
There is a metaphor here, in the way the building has been painted, for the invisibility of its dirt, or its discharge. For while there is no cloud of toxic smoke obscuring the sky, while the sea close to the plant is arguably one of the cleanest areas to swim in the UK due to the regular safety checks and monitoring of the water, while the only obvious pollution is the light pollution that is cast into the night sky in a glowing halo around the plant from the flood lights that surround it, there is waste being created. There is a reversal of our use of the land – where once we excavated the land for coal to create energy, now the by-products of energy production are being returned to the earth: nuclear waste is being buried. Some is stored underwater at Sellafield, some sealed in barrels and deposited deep underground; high-, intermediate- and low-level waste is a constant by-product of the nuclear industry, and while scientists are working across the world to try and resolve the issue, there is as yet, no answer to the problem. The power is not just made in the land, isn’t just threaded through it with underground and overheard cables feeding our homes and businesses, but is actually inside it, buried, and the land is protecting us for now, until a solution for the disposal of waste can be found.
In a short montage film, created by Annie Grove-White for the collaboration, residents of Cemaes Bay speak in English and Welsh about their past and present reactions to the Wylfa site. Faceless voices raise questions about the waste produced, the promises made, the questions unanswered as a series of images cement the relationship between people and place. Both the interviews and the images demonstrate the rapid changes that have taken place since the development of Wylfa A was announced, and now the prospect of Wylfa B has been publicised. Annie informed me that sixteen farms have already been bought by Horizon, the company that has taken over the Magnox site. Already locals are upset because the places that have formed their own horizons for generations are disappearing. The landscape is changing in preparation for the proposed new plant. A second row of pylons is planned to run the length of the island and cross the water, the only concession to the landscape being that the lines will go underneath the Straits this time.
As I left Helen’s house, eager to visit the exhibitions, to see the work the other artists have created in response to this complex issue, I found myself still unsure of my own beliefs. It is hard to contest the potential for clean energy that the nuclear industry provides, but I am uneasy, mindful of the issues that aren’t counted in statistics or that are victim to journalistic spin, of the potential dangers that both Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi have high- lighted. Research into these two events is still in its early stages, and we will not know their full impact for many years to come. The world is demanding more power and every proposed solution is fraught with political implications, financial concerns. Recent government cuts to renewable energy companies that would harness wind and water power, and the new deal with China to build at least three new nuclear power stations in the UK, mean that we are likely to get more of our energy from nuclear power in the future. Everywhere I look, conflicting opinions swirl like dust motes in a shaft of sunlight. My own thoughts are in flux, and I keep returning to a statement by Ele Carpenter, a curator and writer who has recently explored artistic responses to Fukushima Daiichi: ‘There are no facts, only matters of concern.’ The art created by X–10 raises questions, encourages debate, asks us to look and look again at the relationship between the power we desire and demand, and the landscape we inhabit. The artists are archivists of the site, preserving for us a significant chapter in the UK’s nuclear story.
Driving home I let the pylons lead me to the mainland,keeping their steady march across the low hills of Anglesey in sight until I rejoined them to travel across the bridge. I saw them paddling beside me in the rise and fall of the Straits, their bare wire conductor cables catching the sun in graceful silver circum- horizontal arcs that link them as if they are holding hands as they recede away from me into the foothills of Snowdonia. A month or so later I received an email from Helen telling me that the pylons beside her house went silent on 30 December, the day Reactor One was switched off. Anglesey has entered a new phase in the New Year, one that may or may not involve nuclear power. Because of the time it will take to decommission and deconstruct the site, and the power generated by wind turbines that continue to wave their arms over the hillsides, that landscape still contains pylons. Some humming, some silent.
is a writer and researcher from north Wales, currently employed as a GTA at Edge Hill University where she is writing a novel exploring relationships between landscapes and nuclear power for her PhD. Her short fiction has been published in Ascent in the USA, Communion and Bukker Tillibul in Australia, and New Contrast in South Africa. Her short creative non-fiction essay, ‘Energy Crisis – A Memoir of Summer’, was highly commended in the 2015 New Welsh Writing Awards, and an extract was published in New Welsh Reader
X–10 Power in the Land exhibitions continue across Wales and England, including at Aberystwyth Arts Centre until 2 July and Oriel Ynys Môn until 10 July. powerintheland.co.uk
previous essay: Words Without Music
next essay: The Accidental Thread