What It’s Like to Fish in the Shadow of a Nuclear Power Station
All photos by the author.


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What It’s Like to Fish in the Shadow of a Nuclear Power Station

The Thomas family has been fishing at the headland of Dungeness, a beach sandwiched between a nuclear power station and the vast expanse of the English Channel for generations.

Dungeness nuclear power stations, Kent. All photos by the author. Fisherman Dave Ellis.

A beach sandwiched between a nuclear power station, a baron wasteland of shingle, and the vast expanse of the English Channel probably isn't where you'd expect to find a family fishing operation.

But the headland of Dungeness in England's southeastern corner is home to the Thomas family, who've been fishing the waters of this coastal Kent community for generations.

As I head down to the water, I'm greeted by a man leaning against a rusty yellow vehicle.


Dave Ellis, who calls himself "just Dave," is waiting for the boats to land back on shore. He has lived in the area for over 30 years and has spent a decade hoisting the boats onto dry land after a morning out at sea.

"There used to be—what? A dozen or so boats here ten years ago," says Ellis. "Just two families fish here now."

READ MORE: The UK's Small-Scale Fishermen Are Struggling to Make a Living

It's a similar story for fishing communities across the UK. The number of fishermen on registered vessels has decreased by 75 percent since 1938, with a steady decline since the 1990s. There are a number of explanations for the diminishing workforce, not least the problems small-scale fishermen face from European quota systems.

But might there be another explanation for the decline in commercial fishing in Dungeness? There are two nuclear power stations on the 450-acre estate, one of which is still operational. "Dungeness A" was opened in 1965 but stopped producing energy in 2006, while Dungeness B recently had its computer systems upgraded and has a planned closing date of 2028.


Second generation fisherman Joe Thomas.

Fishing in the shadow of not one, but two nuclear power stations doesn't sound like the best idea to me.

"The most noticeable impact of the power stations are the boils," Ellis tells me, gesturing around the peninsula to a bubbling spot.

The seawater itself isn't boiling but the endless stream of water pumping into the Channel from the power station behind makes it look like that.


"I reckon the hot water flowing out of the power station definitely has an impact," he adds, as we stare into the ocean waiting for the boats to return to dry land. "It attracts the smaller creatures and they act as bait for the bigger fish, it's how the food chain works."


Fish also get caught up in the station's cooling system and are propelled out into the sea after obliteration, attracting sea life to the bubbly spot. Ellis claims that it's not quite "nuclear fishin'," but there's a knock-on effect from the reactors.

As the boats come into vision, Ellis heads off to tug them onto the shingle, while a flock of seagulls duck and dive around the deck in the hope of nabbing a share of the catch.

The cod, lemon sole, and gurnard are handed down to Joe Thomas, whose father and grandfather fished the same patch as he does today. Uncle Dave (confusingly, a different Dave to Ellis) has a boat here too, while his father now handles the catch up at the Dungeness Fish Hut Snack Shack, where fish is processed, sold, and served to hungry patrons.

Thomas, 33, has been fishing these waters for some 20 years and is less convinced by the tales that the nuclear reactor makes for good fishing.

"It doesn't really affect anything our end," he says, as I ride shotgun in the pickup heading back up the beach to get the fish processed. "Right over the boil, it churns out some dead fish, attracting a lot of non-value fish: whiting, flounders, little crabs, and some small bass.


Either way, the area directly around the boils is now a nursing area for bass so targeting them is off the cards.

Some 100 million litres of seawater is extracted from the ocean each hour from the power stations, before being pumped back out into the Channel, having been heated to 12 degrees Celsius.

"The ocean dilutes the heat there pretty quickly," Thomas adds.


The Dungeness Fish Hut Snack Shack. Fish Shack owner Kelly Smith.

Even if the nuclear reactors don't make the fishing here any easier, Thomas and the other fishermen I ask are clear that there is nothing to fear from this ocean. No mutated super-fish have been reeled in yet, as reportedly caught last month in the waters surrounding the Fukushima nuclear accident.

So, where have all the boats gone?

"It's quite quiet here due to the legislation," says Thomas, weighing the sole on his scales before lobbing them overhead. "The quota system makes it tough to make a living. The fish are there, but we just can't catch them."

While making a living from fishing can be tough, Thomas' sister, Kelly Smith, has been breathing life into the family business with her cooking. The Dungeness Fish Hut Snack Shack (catchy, right?) has been dishing up fresh fish dishes since opening three years ago.

"We had a shop here, it's been there forever," says Smith, sitting down to chat after hours of busy service. "My nan used to run it but we had to shut it when she got too old and the boys were all still out on the boats. Then my dad decided he needed to come off the boats—long hours, hard graft—there's only so long you can do it for."


For his "retirement," Smith's father decided to reopen up the shop and the snack shack soon followed. By that time, she had had two children and didn't fancy a return to her "quite dull" office job.

"The boys suggested I get involved with this," says Smith. "I thought about it for awhile but the idea of selling wet fish didn't really appeal."

Instead, inspired by London's street food scene, Smith got herself a food cart and got to work on her menu.

"I just thought, we've got this amazing product, just out the sea," she explains. "Fresher than anyone else can lay their hands on and nobody is making use of it."

The menu is based on the day's catch but supplied directly by the fishermen onsite. Homemade fish fingers and chowders feature on the menu during the winter months, while today's chalkboards offer lobster and crab. We tuck into a lemon sole in a homemade flatbread, served with salad and homemade tartar in a cardboard chip box.


Lemon sole with salad and homemade flatbread.

"Something like this will be on the menu all year round, no matter what," says Smith. "We get flat fish all the time: lemon sole, dabs, flounders. They're ideal for me in the kitchen because I only have that one flat grill in there!"

Service in the shadow of a nuclear reactor seems to work pretty well for Smith and her team.

"I think the more that fishermen can sell their product at source the better," she says. "It's great for the customer, your haddock doesn't go through a long supply chain, the product at its best—as fresh as it can be."


It's also better at the producer's end, whether you're buying wet from the counter or cooked from the shack.

"We get the fairest price possible and know our work is getting appreciated," adds Smith. "The more people that do this across the UK the better."

I'm unsure whether there's something in the water at Dungeness, but whatever's going down at the Fish Hut Snack Shack certainly seems to be working.