A nuclear family outing

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The Independent Online
Give your kids a warm glow, and take a trip to Sizewell, writes Emma Haughton.

Despite all those reassuring ads on the TV, driving towards Sizewell nuclear power station still makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Somehow it all looks so incongruous - the tangle of pylons marching out across the mellow Suffolk countryside, the looming apocalyptic white dome that dominates the coastal skyline for miles around.

Sizewell's two magnox and one water-powered reactors supply enough electricity for the whole of East Anglia, and its new owners, Magnox and Nuclear Electric, are keen to let you know it. The visitors' centre has plenty to while away rainy hours, including a full-scale exhibition explaining how nuclear reactors work, and various multimedia shows, models and displays covering the history of electricity, principles of fission, atomic waste disposal and, more surprisingly, how Sizewell cares for the environment.

It's all enlivened by a number of quirky exhibits, like the large and colourful display of antique glow-in-the-dusk radioactive glass ornaments - which would now be regarded as low-level nuclear waste - and plenty of hands-on activities for kids, including the chance to play with the Fantasia globe that arcs a blue stream of electricity towards your hand when you touch the glass. You can also conduct your own experiments with a Geiger counter, detecting the radioactivity of various everyday objects like an old luminous alarm clock and a granite pebble. No prizes for guessing that it's the granite which sends the counter into a frenzy of white noise.

When you've exhausted the exhibits, you can see Sizewell-B on a minibus tour. Once the bus clears the security compound, you watch men wandering around in overalls and hard hats looking quite relaxed, and get a gull's- eye view of the 750,000 gallons of North Sea sucked into the plant every minute. You'll also get a close-up of that spooky giant golfball housing the water reactor, thoughtfully coated in self-cleaning Teflon so it will gleam across the East Anglian coastline for many a year to come.

The visitors

Emma Haughton, a freelance writer, and Joff Rees, househusband, took their three boys - Joshua, 7, Flan, 4, and Zachary, 2.

Joshua: I liked the video quiz. You had just 10 minutes to complete it and it was very hard. I couldn't do it; nor could Mummy. I looked at a lot of things about electricity. I liked the electric Fantasia ball; if you put your hand on the back and looked through, you could see your skeleton. I had a go on the Geiger counter, which was fun, but I wasn't sure what it meant. On the bus we saw all the buildings in the power station and the big white dome, which looked really nice. I think it would all be more interesting when I'm a lot older, though. It was a bit too grown- up for me; I'm not really bothered about power stations and all that stuff.

Flan: My favourite thing was the video game, but I didn't have a go because Daddy wanted to play it. We went on a bus and looked where the sea came in. I thought that if you fell in they would throw in a rubber ring to get you. The most fun was the cinema where we saw the big white dome being built. The cinema is on all the time, every day, even if there are no people there. There was also a ball with power in it. When I put my hand on it, the electricity followed my hand. It looked really funny.

Joff: Much of the exhibition was a bit over the kids' heads, but it compensated by being visually very stimulating. There were lots of little working models and videos, but it was a bit disconcerting to find that quite a few didn't work. It hardly fills you full of confidence.

I particularly enjoyed the minibus tour. It was like travelling around Switzerland on someone's Hornby railway set - everything was so neat, clean and orderly. The guide told us that the sea water leaves the plant 8-9 degrees hotter, and cheerfully suggested that Sizewell beach is therefore the best place to swim.

Emma: It was all imaginatively done, very educational and quite fascinating, but after a while I began to feel rather brainwashed. Unlike a museum, where things are displayed for their own sake, everything in the visitors' centre seemed to be there to prove that nuclear power is clean, economical and absolutely safe. It was obvious that global warming is the best thing to happen to the nuclear industry since Ernest Rutherford first split a nitrogen atom 80 years ago. No opportunity was lost, for instance, to tell you that UK nuclear electricity saves an annual 13 million tonnes of carbon emissions.

I felt there were a lot of highly questionable terms like "fail-safe" bandied about, and the video, which assured you that nuclear energy has a "negligible environmental impact", struck me as pure propaganda. I thoroughly enjoyed the visit, but it could have done with more balance - perhaps an interactive game, "Can You Avoid Meltdown?", or a video, "Great Nuclear Accidents of Our Time". I'm sure Greenpeace would be happy to help.

The deal

Sizewell visitors' centre (01728 642139) is next to the power station. From the A12, follow the signs to Leiston, then take the B1119.

Opening times: daily 10am-4pm, except Christmas and Boxing Day.

Admission: free.

Facilities: there are toilets and a vending area for refreshments. The 40-minute mini-bus tours leave at regular intervals. There are also 11/2- hour walking tours of Sizewell A Magnox station, but these are not available to the under-fives. There is a nature conservation area outside.

Access: the visitors' centre is accessible by wheelchair, and disabled visitors can be accommodated on the mini-bus, but not the walking tour.

pit stop

Once you've sized up Sizewell, head for the Manor House at Walberswick (01502 723243). At this neat, family-run restaurant and tea shop, toasted tea cakes (90p), sandwiches (from pounds 2) and cream teas (pounds 3) are available all day, while the blackboard lunch menu features local fish and other produce such as grilled or fried plaice (pounds 5.50), seafood thermidor (pounds 7.95) and sausages with potatoes and onions. Starters include a home-made soup, and grilled banana with Stilton and cream.

In the afternoon there are also high teas - scrambled eggs (pounds 3.95), cheese on toast with bacon (pounds 3.95), grilled kippers. Small portions are available on request, plus a few extras for children such as chicken nuggets, fish fingers and sausages with chips. Facilities include a high-chair and a changing shelf in the Ladies.

From 'And Children Come Too', Bookman, pounds 9.99