THE man in charge of the vast Torness nuclear power station on Scotland’s east coast has said the industry has a huge contribution to make after the 30-year-old plant celebrated a record performance.

One of the two reactors at the power station near Dunbar operated continuously for 865 days between shut-downs beating the previous best by six days.

The achievement is a source of pride for Tamer Albishawi, who was promoted to station director at Torness in September. Aged 38, he is the youngest station director in the eight strong fleet operated by EDF.

The company acquired the fleet when it bought East Kilbride-based British Energy for £12.5 billion in 2008.

READ MORE: International giants to bid for Scottish windfarm licences

Sitting in his office with views over the plant and out to the Forth estuary, Mr Albishawi notes the strong performance by reactor number one allowed Torness to play a vital role during the pandemic last year.

“The generation in 2020 of Torness alone was enough to power all the homes in Scotland and carbon free; the equivalent of taking 1.7 million cars off the road,” he says.

Asked about the deep-rooted opposition that some people have to the industry on environmental grounds, Mr Albishawi acknowledges that selling the nuclear story has always been challenging.

However, he thinks growing awareness of the threat of climate change has only reinforced the arguments in favour of nuclear as part of a mix that includes a large share of renewables.

“I absolutely think we should take on more renewables energy” says Mr Albishawi, who reckons offshore wind will be an important element of a low carbon mix. From Torness he can see boats going out to the area in which EDF is developing the Neart na Gaoithe windfarm.

However, noting that nuclear power is available 24/7, he observes: “You can’t control when the wind blows and we still can’t store large amounts of energy. I’m sure that will develop in the future but I also would emphasise that having lots of renewable energy without it being backed by significant energy I think is quite difficult to manage from a grid stability point of view.”

On the question of safety Mr Albishawi says: “I’ve got two young kids and my wife and I took them on multiple tours on site and that’s because of the confidence I have in the safety and the quality of the station … I know what happens here; I know the technology; I know how impressive the people who work here are. If you think of what we’ve achieved: our best ever run at the height of the pandemic.”

HeraldScotland: Station director Tamer Albishawi outside the Torness nuclear power plant in East LothianStation director Tamer Albishawi outside the Torness nuclear power plant in East Lothian

Mr Albishawi was born in Jordan but moved to Edinburgh with his family at the age of two.

He entered the nuclear industry after gaining a first in electrical engineering from the University of Huddersfield and also has an MBA from Edinburgh university. As station director at Torness he gets to indulge an interest in how things work that he developed as a youngster while having to shoulder huge responsibilities.

The plant has 500 employees and 250 contractors work on site. Many members of the workforce live locally.

The site was chosen for the ease of access to the seawater that it uses as a coolant but Dunbar is less than five miles away. Edinburgh is within 30 miles.

READ MORE: Creditors set to take control of Sheland oil pioneer once valued at £1bn

Mr Albishawi, who is known as Tam to colleagues, says the fostering of links with the community is an important part of his job.

The work of managing the plant involves regular testing for risks such as fire and terrorism.

“The last one we did was a 24 hour exercise … this was simulated very realistically. We had police at night, radio comms. Scenarios are deliberately very stretching. We imagine the worst that could happen and we add to that another worst thing that could happen.”

The plant contains two reactors that generate heat that is used to produce the steam required to turn massive turbines housed in a cavernous hall beside them.

Mr Albishawi is especially pleased that the team he leads recently managed to complete an essential outage successfully despite the challenges posed by the pandemic. Outages are completed every three years on a schedule agreed with the regulator and allow EDF to complete maintenance work and checks on the graphite fuel bricks that play a key role in keeping the reaction process going safely.

The latest involved an investment of around £25m and the completion of more than 12,000 pieces of work.

READ MORE: Scotland to play leading role in drive to deal with historic carbon emissions

Mr Albishawi’s team had to arrange to allow an extra 500 people to work on the site while ensuring they complied with social distancing and other Covid-19 related precautions. The plant imported a mass testing capability, enabled people to work from home where possible and introduced one way systems and colour-coded markings to guide the movement of people around the labyrinthine site.

There has been no onsite transmission and the number of positive cases recorded has been relatively low.

The company did the largest number of graphite inspections it had ever done during the latest outage and Mr Albishawi found the results reassuring.

“We’ve continued to see that the kit is in such a good state, primarily because in outages we really do all the work that needs to be done. We invest a lot of money to make sure the kit continues to generate safely and gives us another three years and that’s how we achieved our best ever run.”

When it was opened in May 1988, the plant was expected to shut down in 2018. The expected date for the end of generation at the site was subsequently pushed back to 2030.

“Based on our inspections we know how the graphite ages and we’re seeing that it’s exactly as we would expect, which tells me the 2030 estimate is a good estimate,” says Mr Albishawi.

HeraldScotland: Torness station director Tamer Albishawi by one of the turbines in the plantTorness station director Tamer Albishawi by one of the turbines in the plant

He reckons it would not be commercially viable to replace the graphite.

However, Torness will still be generating power long after some plants have come to the end of their generating lives.

Hunterston in Ayrshire is due to enter the defuelling process later this year.

Generation stopped at the Dounreay plant in Caithness in 1994. 

EDF announced earlier this month that it had decided to move Dungeness B in Kent into the defuelling phase with immediate effect. The plant has been in extended outage since 2018 while EDF grapples with technical challenges it says have not been found at similar stations.

READ MORE:Scottish nuclear plant clean up generates $10m contract for engineering giant

EDF is building the Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset which will include two reactors. In January the expected cost of the plant was increased by £500m to £23bn. The expected date for the start of generation was pushed back to 2026 from 2025.

Mr Albishawi is confident that Torness will be making a huge contribution to the Scottish energy mix and to the local community well into the future.

“We’ve got a fantastic asset. We offer something really special given the net zero ambition.”

After generation ceases there will be huge amounts of activity on site for years during the fuel removal and decommissioning processes.

Q&A

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

I visited China and Hong Kong for business prior to the Covid Pandemic. I found the different approach and methodology a valuable learning experience.

For leisure I enjoy travelling to Indonesia. I’m fascinated by the culture, music and most of all the incredible street food!

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

I have always wanted to be an engineer, and I still love engineering. I like to understand how things work and found have myself dismantling just about anything I could get my hands on. Putting things back together was however a different story!

What was your biggest break in business?

During my time as Torness Station Director, we set the Torness record for the best ever continuous run of 865 days, safely generating enough carbon free electricity to power all the homes in Scotland two times over and avoid the equivalent emissions of over 2 million cars. This is down to every single member of team Torness and reflects our continuous learning as a company. I’m incredibly proud of the team at Torness, contract partners and central teams for this outstanding achievement, which has been achieved through excellent teamwork, professionalism and dedication.

What was your worst moment in business?

The global Covid Pandemic. I understand our responsibility to safely generate carbon free electricity, especially when our hospitals are relying on the power to save lives. All of our teams are affected by the global pandemic and it has been a huge challenge to ensure we deliver our role in critical national infrastructure while ensuring our people and community are protected. Although this has been and continues to be a huge challenge, I’m humbled by the flexibility, professionalism and selflessness that our staff have showed to ensure everyone has electricity when we need it.

Who do you most admire and why?

I have always been grateful for the NHS and the support of our doctors and nurses. A very dedicated and incredibly competent nurse, Maeve, looked after our son during a difficult period. Not only was she exceptionally good at what she did, but she showed real empathy and selflessness while caring for our son. It was personal not transactional and although I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for a nurse in a paediatric intensive care unit, what I saw was her passion and energy to ensure the children are happy during difficult times. What a person!

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to? What was the last film you saw?

I’m fascinated by human psychology and have been re-reading Aubrey Daniels’ Bringing Out The Best in People. I enjoy Spanish music, especially Flamenco.

The last film I saw was on our family Friday movie night, it was my 10 year old daughter, Tanya’s turn to pick and we watched Soul. Amazing film!