Seabrook center shows off the nuclear science

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / March 14, 2010

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SEABROOK, N.H. — David Barr ushers visitors to elevator doors in the Science & Nature Center at Seabrook Station, where he is education program manager, urging them, “You have to suspend disbelief. This is our little bit of Disney World.’’ The special effects are not exactly Magic Kingdom level, but the stationary “elevator’’ does simulate a 260-foot descent into bedrock to the level of the cooling water tunnels for the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant.

When the doors open, visitors step into a 9-foot-high tunnel meant to simulate one of the plant’s two cooling water tunnels. Displays along one wall explain how it took six years to carve the three miles of 19-foot-diameter tunnels through solid bedrock. They were completed in 1984 and Seabrook Station began operating in 1990, the last nuclear power plant to go online in New England.

The education center, open since 1978, was the first permanent facility on the site. “We want people to have a sense of how we fit into the whole energy picture,’’ Barr says. “We need to remove the mystery.’’

School groups are the main clientele, but Seabrook also welcomes individuals to its displays and to a boardwalk nature trail crossing woodlands and skimming along the marshes. With 20 to 30 nuclear power plants “on the drawing boards,’’ according to Barr, and with some environmental specialists calling for a reconsideration of nuclear power to stem global warming, the Science & Nature Center is a good place to get a decidedly industry view of the science and technology of nuclear power.

The simulated tunnel exits into coastal zone exhibits that highlight the ecology of the marshes and near-coast shallows around Seabrook. A touch pool lets visitors handle sponges, snails, barnacles, and sea anemones. One aquarium is ruled by a true biological oddity: a giant blue lobster nicknamed Chilly Willy. His color is a natural mutation that has nothing to do with the plant, but he’s a tough act for other exhibits to follow.

A little parlor magic enlivens a room devoted to explaining electricity in terms that even a grown-up can understand. The difference between current electricity and static electricity is neatly summarized by blue sparks riding up a set of rails with a satisfying snap and crackle, versus a Barbie doll having a very bad hair day as a static charge rises on an adjacent steel ball.

The center presents nuclear power matter-of-factly. Schematic diagrams illustrate how a nuclear reactor generates heat (by lowering the fuel rods into the reactor core) and how pressurized hot water spins turbines to generate power. Perhaps the most satisfying parts of the exhibit are a fuel rod assembly (which resembles a bundle of stainless steel curtain rods) and some mock fuel pellets. The dull black pellets are about the size and shape of a pencil eraser, but each real pellet packs the energy of 150 gallons of oil or nearly a ton of coal.

Parents who are always reminding their children to turn off the lights may want to linger in the final room. The kids can pedal a bicycle to light up a bulb (it’s hard work). Touch-screen games calculate kilowatt hours for every activity from watching TV to running the dishwasher. Plug in numbers from a utility bill, and electricity suddenly gets very real as dollars and cents.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@

If You Go

Science & Nature Center at Seabrook Station

Lafayette Road (off Route 1),
Seabrook, N.H.


Monday-Thursday 10 a.m.-3 p.m.