A look at the decommissioning of the Trawsfynydd nuclear power station, the lost settlements of Skomer Island and the search for the wreck of a Bristol Channel pilot cutter.
Browse content similar to Episode 4. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
The Royal Commission is a government detective agency set up in the same year as the FBI.
Unlike the FBI, the Commission investigates the history of Wales,
and its case files are open to everyone.
This week, the challenges involved when a nuclear power station closes.
Did Stone Age people live on the island of Skomer?
We look at new evidence.
And the mystery of a shipwreck in the Bristol Channel - is it a pilot cutter that went down in 1916?
Like it or loathe it, Trawsfynydd nuclear power station is one of Wales'
most iconic buildings, a huge industrial structure in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park.
Cutting edge when it opened back in the 60s, not a spark of electricity
has been produced here in nearly 20 years, and decommissioning is well under way.
It's a big story in more ways than one, and the Royal Commission is one of several organisations
involved in ensuring that the history of what has gone on here is recorded for posterity.
When it opened in 1965, Trawsfynydd was a flagship for the burgeoning nuclear power industry.
One of Britain's top architects, Sir Basil Spence, was responsible
for the plans, and some of his documents are held in the Royal Commission Archive in Aberystwyth.
This being Snowdonia, Sir Basil wanted the buildings
to have something of the mass of a medieval castle.
The fact that the plant was in the middle of Snowdonia National Park was highly controversial.
Peter Wakelin of the Royal Commission explains the thinking behind Spence's approach.
The mass of a medieval castle, that was Basil Spence's aim.
-Did he pull it off?
-Well, I think...
It's enormous, isn't it?
It's bigger than any of our castles, by a long way.
These are 180 feet high, these towers, and obviously when the ideas
were being proposed for the site, there was a lot of concern
that the pretty new Snowdonia National Park was going to have this plonked right in the middle of it.
What was the point in having a national park if you'd allow something like this?
So I think the response to that was Basil Spence coming in with ideas of making it look like
it belonged in the landscape, and I think from a distance you do get
this amazing sensation of it being monumental and sort of belonging, with the mountains as a backdrop.
I've got some drawings here that I've managed to get hold of from
our sister body in Scotland, the Scottish Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments,
and the Scottish Commission has been given Sir Basil Spence's complete archive.
So amongst that archive are some drawings that show
the concepts that he had of these towers sitting in the landscape.
Being cruel, Peter, you could say they are just brutal boxes of concrete.
Is there more to it than that?
Is there beauty in the detail?
Because they wanted to fit this site into a landscape, I think
Basil Spence and Sylvia Crowe both did things that made more of it, and there was a lot of intricate detail.
Looking up at the reactor tower here, you can see that it's not just plain concrete panels.
The concrete panels have got these fascinating little ribbed features on them
which give texture, and it makes the concrete recede.
Instead of looking like a great white mass,
he's got these different patterns that create light and shade on the structure.
He also made sure that they were using local aggregates
that fitted with the colour of the surrounding mountains, just to help make it blend in.
But overall, of course, it is essentially a brutalist structure.
He is doing what those architects of the 60s and 70s did in creating great masses of concrete and showing
the modern systems and power for the future.
Peter Wakelin is working with Royal Commission photographer Iain Wright
to create a photographic record of the site.
Sylvia Crowe wanted to design the landscape so the site disappeared as much as possible.
And she didn't want gardens coming up to the building.
But there was one exception here, and this little area is what she called the rest area.
Just a small area for people to come and have a bit of peace and quiet from work.
I think this is a really beautifully constructed feature,
with these stones going down into the pond with the rock in the bottom.
So do you think you could get a photograph of that, Iain?
And the other interesting thing to photograph,
which is just over here, is the steps.
A beautifully designed feature. It looks like a piece of ancient archaeology in a jungle, doesn't it?
So if we get this in and the section behind it, probably from...
We'll come from further up on the slope.
Incredible as it may seem, no-one thought of the problems of decommissioning
when Trawsfynydd was being built just 50 years ago, and the process has thrown up major challenges.
Over 500 people are employed at the site and decommissioning is costing £1 million per week.
Back then, they took no consideration at all into how they were going to
take it apart, even though they knew it had a finite lifetime.
There were plans put in place as to how to put the waste in safe places, but there were no plans or even
any requirements that the waste would have to be retrieved and sorted and stored safely in the long term.
That was perhaps left for future generations.
We are the future generation, and even with my age now we have got the next generation coming along.
But we do have plans to safely recover and retrieve those wastes.
If the plant dominates its surroundings, the interior is even more amazing.
This is colossal.
I am inside one of the two reactor buildings, the twin towers at the heart of Trawsfynydd.
They are both being substantially reduced in size -
the result of a public inquiry to find out how local people wanted the site to appear in future.
They voted overwhelmingly to do away with the impressive castle approach
and opted instead for smaller buildings to house the nuclear reactors until they are safe.
That is in about 75 to 80 years' time.
The reactors took nearly six years to build and will need to remain in situ until 2085.
The roof is now being lowered.
I feel minute, and yet we are still only, what?
The ground is 100 feet down there?
Yes, about 100 feet.
-And the very top of this, that's 175 feet above ground level.
So at the moment we are actually positioned on top of this red slab.
This is the capping roof above the charge face.
There's the large crane overhead, and if we look down underneath us where the charge face is,
we have a number of stand pipes, and these connect the reactor pressure vessel, the blue item.
-And this is sat within concrete bioshield. This is several metres thick.
-I love that crane.
It's a wonderful crane, yes.
-That is a crane.
-Yeah, that is a crane and a half.
And the reason why it's such a substantial crane, it goes back to this point about
the fuelling machinery was really very heavy, very substantial, over 100 tonnes,
But that's going?
That's right. So in the final phase when we come to do the height reduction -
as I said, that's taking this top third down, the crane, etc, the roof, everything -
that's all part of that particular phase of works.
-Bit of scrap.
What generally happens these days with scrap copper, steelwork,
generally there's a market for it and more often than not it will actually pay for the decommissioning work.
-So there should be an income from this as well.
-You're making money here?
-That's good. That's good for the customer.
Size clearly matters at Trawsfynydd, and Iain Wright is only just
beginning to take in the photographic challenges.
It's big, I suppose, but like a lot of industrial buildings they're on a sort of scale.
Here you're looking at one floor, it's not the whole building.
You haven't got the whole height.
And unfortunately when you come to record them,
it always has to be from the corners to get as much as you can, really.
But you are trying to record what was here because of the enormous history to this sort of place.
And actually it's all within our lifetime, which is extraordinary.
The whole thing's been built and it's all coming down again.
Removal of waste is one of the key problems.
Although 99.9% of the most toxic material has now been removed,
there are six ongoing recovery schemes.
This is my video game for real.
What we are looking at here is an old cooling pond for spent radioactive fuel rods.
And what I'm looking for here is a machine called...
There it is, the scabbling machine.
And this goes along and removes 20 millimetres of contaminated concrete.
In all, there's 300 tons of contaminated concrete, and this machine
takes it off, reduces it to dust and then it's all safely removed.
I suppose it's like a jackhammer and a vacuum cleaner all rolled into one.
It's exactly that. There's no leading-edge technology here.
You will see some of these tools on typical excavators
out on a demolition site.
The beauty we have is being able to switch between the tools remotely.
We can break out the rubble, we can then crush it
using these pulveriser pads that the team actually designed on site.
We then extract it up using the vacuum head, and it is like putting a Dyson on the end of the machine,
but distinctly more powerful because you are sucking up aggregate and concrete dust.
We can fill one of our waste containers, which is
over three-quarters of a tonne, in a couple of hours.
For Iain, the control room offers a fascinating close-up of decommissioning in action.
I see you're taking some pictures of pretty modern activity here, Iain.
It's modern now.
You've got to remember, in the future, people will say,
"How did they decommission?" And you say, "Well, you sort of
"scrape the concrete off and you drag it away and put it somewhere safe."
It's one thing saying that, but people want to see images, it's not just reading about it.
I mean, I remember, as a child, with comics and things,
I just used to look at the pictures. I never read the words.
That's why I'm doing this!
Monitoring is the name of the game at every stage, especially when entering and leaving.
Everyone leaving has to go through one of these. It's a contamination monitor.
It's all so safe here that, touch wood, coming out leaves you as clean as going in.
'Turn and assume backward monitoring position.'
There was one exception.
When the Chernobyl reactor blew up in 1986,
radioactivity was carried on the wind to the UK and fell in rainfall on Snowdonia.
Workers coming here the next day showed noticeably higher levels of radiation.
Magnox North, the decommissioning company,
is working closely with locals to create a legacy which will benefit the community.
A priority is to develop tourism.
The lake is already used by anglers and has the potential to become
a centre of excellence for water sports and leisure.
The Royal Commission is interested in the total history of the site
and keen to conserve memories, wherever they originate.
We've learned a lot today, coming here with Iain.
We've been looking at the activities that are going on here now
as well as the history of the site, which was one of the things that we were aware of.
I think we've realised that the decommissioning process itself is something we need to be recording.
And our record of that as an organisation that does photography
and survey will sit alongside, hopefully, oral history with the local community and material
from the past going into archives and libraries and museums to make sure that this story
of this incredibly important site is available to the people of Wales in the future.
I feel like I'm travelling back in time, heading over to
one of the most fascinating islands in the UK in terms of prehistory.
Situated at the southern tip of St Bride's Bay in Pembrokeshire,
Skomer is an archaeologist's paradise.
Its remoteness and lack of development mean that large tracks of the islands
have been undisturbed since prehistoric times.
Until now, it's been thought that the remains date from the Iron Age,
but new evidence suggests that we may be looking at Stone Age settlements.
Louise Barker and Toby Driver from the Royal Commission are beginning a new survey
which holds the tantalising prospect that the story of human settlement on the island
dates back 5,000 years.
Well, the last surveys of Skomer were carried out in the 1950s and 1980s.
They were both excellent for their time.
But Skomer is of European archaeological significance.
Looking at it again, Louise and I have started seeing
an immense amount of new information that's not noted down anywhere.
It's quite staggering, actually. That's why we're taking an interest today.
We've got lots of new technology.
Specifically, I should mention LIDAR,
which is the aerial laser scanning.
So that really is starting to yield more information.
But it's also older technologies.
Every year, Toby's flying and gathering more aerial photographs,
and each time under different conditions.
Looking from the air at winter time when the vegetation's very low, the light scuds across the landscape.
It picks out every lump and bump. Every THING people have done on Skomer,
over the last few thousand years, ago stands out.
Comparing what we see on the photographs, the field systems,
the field boundaries, the huts, with what had been mapped in the previous surveys,
we can see new information and that's telling us a new story now about how the island developed in prehistory.
In terms of human settlement, boundaries are being pushed back.
The standard story for Skomer is that it was occupied in the Iron Age, before the Romans came to Wales.
Maybe more than a century of occupation. That's the story.
They arrived and - the old Easter Island scenario - they ran out of wood, water and they left the island.
Looking at what we've got on the island, that's far too simplified.
What would you suggest is more likely then?
I think when you start looking at the island, we can take the history of the island much further back,
much earlier in to the Stone Age possibly.
One of the structures that particularly excites Louise is this roundhouse.
There are several on the island.
As a medievalist who studied in Ireland,
where there are early medieval roundhouses by the score, I'm intrigued.
We're just stood in the main home that's often termed as a roundhouse.
The structure that we're looking at now is slightly more oval.
They're all very similar.
You can see where the wall has been exposed along this side here.
Vertical, upright stones, low wall timber, a timber upper half here.
So it fits in with the whole island in the prehistory of the island.
So what do these roundhouses tell us of our settlements on the island?
When you look at a plan which maps the archaeology on the island,
we've got at least 30, 30 plus roundhouses that we've got recorded here.
They appear in small clusters, perhaps two, three, four houses at a time.
You're looking at a hamlet settlement. You'd have the roundhouse
and surrounding it you'd have the enclosures, fields and paddocks.
It would almost be like a village or a hamlet.
I think this is a land of opportunity out here.
This is why it doesn't quite fit with the abandonment of the island,
and the desolation of the island, having to go back to the mainland.
If you're cultivating crops, you're harvesting the natural resources, you've got the coppice woodland
to provide you with building material and fuel. Why do you need to leave?
It's a good place to live.
It was a good place to die as well, with evidence of burial sites scattered throughout the landscape.
What's most interesting, came back here today particularly, these odd boulders on the ridges behind us.
20 years ago, people would've thought they were old stones lying around on the top of the hill,
but now we're understanding a bit more about what neolithic people,
new stone-age people were doing 5,000 years ago with burial and ritual.
Sometimes they used boulders to put the bones of their dead.
They used to prop them up on stones as well.
Maybe we're seeing evidence of earlier ritual structures here overlooking the later farms.
The exciting thing about this valley particularly,
is it's like we're standing in a street, a village or a hamlet.
You can imagine the people, imagine the farmers, children here, a long time ago.
This would have been a very busy place once upon a time.
Skomer is famous as a bird sanctuary, offering a spectacular summer home
to thousands of breeding seabirds, such as puffins.
When night falls, another visitor arrives, Manx Shearwater,
which live in burrows often colonised from rabbits.
Some of the burrows run underneath the archaeological sites.
Is there a conflict between wildlife and archaeology?
I wouldn't say no, there's burrows absolutely everywhere on the island.
We've 120,000 breeding pairs of shearwaters
and they all breed in burrows under the ground.
The archaeology is very close to that and there's nothing we can do
about the shearwaters affecting the archaeology. I don't think they do to a great extent.
The primary aim of this reserve is the wildlife and the archaeology as well.
It's a very interesting balance.
Back at headquarters, Toby showed me how technology is posing new questions.
Here we've some LIDAR data, some airborne laser scanning data.
This isn't an aerial photograph, this is captured from an aeroplane.
The aeroplane is flying over Skomer and a laser is scanning the ground below it.
It gives us an amazing popped-up 3D view of the landscape.
We can begin to get a sense of where people were living.
Here is that farm again on the coast overlooking the cliffs on the northern side of Skomer.
We can have a bit of fun. We can turn the sun around in the computer and have the sun rising
from the northeast or northwest, from places that would be impossible in real life.
This allows us to cast shadows on that very faint archaeology, to reveal it more clearly.
If you were standing on Skomer now, would you see these for yourself?
There's no guarantee we'd see things as clearly on the ground as we do on the laser data.
There's long grass, scrub, bushes and so on.
With this view we can see things very clearly and it gives us an idea
of where to go with our survey gear when we get out there next year.
It's such a bonus to have this cutting edge data to show us where the archaeology is.
It really saves us time in the field.
With its sandbanks, rocks and massive tides, the Bristol Channel
remains the most dangerous shipping channels in the world.
Back in the days of sail, to be a pilot required great skill and long experience.
They were great characters and so were the little boats
that ferried them back and forth between the cargo ships and the docks.
The waters around Sully Island have been the graveyard of many a ship,
including this ribbed skeleton of a wreck on the foreshore.
The Royal Commission's Maritime Office, Deanna Groom, has studied
records of sinkings in these treacherous waters and believes it may be that of the Baratanach -
a pilot cutter like this which went down in a storm in 1916.
The location fits, but so far it's only guesswork and today, Deanna's in search of evidence.
Part of the research we're doing for the National Monuments Record is a programme of shipwreck research.
This wreck is visible in our aerial photograph collections.
Some of the references I saw suggest it was the Baratanach.
The information we have about the Baratanach, it was built in 1879,
it was built for a pilot called Thomas Rosser, a Cardiff pilot.
It was wrecked twice before it ended up here at Sully Island.
He rehearsed all this then.
What we know about the Baratanach,
it was 41'5" long, the old imperial measure.
Looking at this, this looks a good bit longer.
Too long, we can go home now.
We're looking at a really nice, kind of... Bit visual here.
..a really lovely...wine-glass shape for the hull.
This looks very flat.
A flat barge, more cargo carrier.
The channel is littered with wrecks.
We've 66 records for pilot cutters.
Primarily the cause of loss is collision.
Over half of them were lost in a very difficult manoeuvre.
That's reassuring because these guys were meant to be the ones that know
everything there is to know about the Bristol Channel.
Yet 66 of them went down.
If it's collisions, it shows how dangerous their job was.
It was a dangerous manoeuvre.
Statistics say that was the primary cause of loss and it's connected to what they were doing.
It's a tiny little wooden sailing boat, coming in close proximity
to a large steam ship or large sailing vessel. That's dangerous.
This mystery boat, could this be it?
It's in the right place. One of the reported places was the north side of Sully Island.
That's where we are - in the rain today, unfortunately.
-There's a doubt here isn't there?
-There's a doubt because I think what we're looking at today
is probably just that bit too long and too big.
What we're going to do, if you'll be my assistant.
We're going to get a tape measure out and run it along from the stern to the bow
and get an idea of how long it is.
That will tell us about the kind of vessel we're looking at.
Pilot cutters raced each other to meet big boats coming up the Bristol Channel,
intent on getting their pilots on board to steer the ship safety into port.
It was dangerous and taxing work, calling for detailed knowledge of tides and hidden reefs.
If you want to know what the Baratanach looked like,
you can get a pretty good idea from the Olga, a cutter built in 1909 -
seven years before the Baratanach went down.
The Olga is owned by Swansea Museum and I was intrigued to find out
how the pilots transferred from the cutter to the incoming boat.
They had a punt, which is basically a small little rowing dinghy
between eight and ten feet long, which usually lived on the deck here.
We have a life raft now instead and the punt was literally lowered
over the side by using a boom, like a crane.
The pilot would jump in, row across.
You can imagine rowing across in some of the weather they were out in. It must have been dreadful.
Then he'd step aboard the bigger ship and pilot the big ship in.
-How far out to sea would they go?
-This particular pilot would have worked
as far as the Scillies perhaps to try and pick up some of the traffic.
Sometimes there were up to ten boats racing for the business. It depends how busy they were.
You can imagine the ports into the South Wales area. There are hundreds of ships coming up on a high tide.
Every boat had to have a pilot so there would be up to 20 pilots
working out of Swansea, 30 pilots out of Cardiff, and 20 out of Newport.
Immense spirit of competition. Did they cut any corners?
I'm sure they did. I think a lot of money was made elsewhere as well.
Contraband etc. I know smuggling was a pastime for some of the pilot boat captains for sure.
Extra cash. You can imagine before the days of GPS etc, everything was done by paper charts.
There was always ambiguities about the paper charts they were using.
You can imagine it out there being a free-for-all, going as fast as you can, terrible weather in the winter.
Probably one of the most dangerous places on earth to sail with the extreme tides that we have.
These guys really knew their stuff, they were the best.
I can see that, as Deanna gets the measure of the wreck, doubts are beginning to creep in.
18.50m. If I turn it over, we've got the old imperial measures.
We got 61 feet. It's definitely too long isn't it? It's too big.
-Size does matter.
-Yes, it does!
-When you're a pilot cutter.
-This is just too big.
With one theory sunk, what are we left with?
We have a mystery here.
One closes, another one opens up.
We've still got two pilot cutters here somewhere that we're still to find.
We have another mystery vessel but in the meantime, we'll have to close the door on this being the Baratanach.
'At Commission headquarters, the scale of what's involved, trying to identify wrecks becomes apparent.'
Around Sully Island itself, we've got about 16 references to shipwrecks.
These are the two pilot cutters here, the Lotte and Baratanach.
This is our wreck on the foreshore here. The Swanbridge wreck.
The white is actually land so what you're looking at, this white patch here,
this is Sully Island and these green areas are intertidal and are dry when the tide goes out.
If you get caught out and the winds are wrong, they would get blown
to shore here on this side of the island to be wrecked or stranded.
If we zoom out a bit on the map and look at the bigger picture for the whole of Wales,
you can get an idea of what the data set is at present time.
There's about 5,500 ship wrecks around the coast of Wales.
Half of those we don't actually know what the vessels are.
Cardiff, as expected, with the coal port and trading in and out of there,
the map actually starts to go bright red.
There's almost no space between the dots at this scale and resolution.
That's the scale of the problem, to try and put names to those wrecks.
So now, where there was one mystery,
there are two, the name of the wreck on Sully Foreshore
and the location of a pilot cutter, from the glorious days of sail, called Baratanach.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
A look at the decommissioning of the Trawsfynydd nuclear power station, the lost settlements of Skomer Island and the search for the wreck of a Bristol Channel pilot cutter.
Presented by Eddie Butler and Heledd Fychan.