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The rise of nuclear power [print version]

The Sellafield Nuclear Plant in 1986 with, left, the cooling towers of Calder Hall Power Station. Photo Ben Brooksbank (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Britain’s nuclear power industry had its origins in outstanding research – and led to the first atomic electricity station in the capitalist world…

Long before the development of the atomic bomb, research in Britain – especially at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge – had established a formidable base of knowledge about the atom. It was there that J. J. Thomson discovered the electron in 1897, and James Chadwick discovered the neutron in 1932. 

It was also at the Cavendish that Ernest Rutherford led the first experimental splitting of an atomic nucleus. A New Zealander, he had identified alpha and beta radiation while in Canada, and discovered the proton in Manchester.

Nuclear research was spurred on during World War 2. British and Canadian scientists worked together in a project known as “Tube Alloys” to produce a nuclear weapon. They joined the Manhattan Project when America decided to develop its nuclear weapon.

In 1946 the USA stopped sharing nuclear secrets with its wartime allies, despite their open cooperation. The British government was forced to find its own way to build a nuclear bomb. Two air-cooled reactors, called “piles”, were built at a wartime munitions site at Sellafield on the Cumbrian coast, later known as Windscale.

Plutonium and power 

By 1950, the two large nuclear piles achieved fission, creating new elements including plutonium. By 1952 Britain successfully tested its first nuclear bomb. Christopher Hinton, in charge of the construction of Windscale and other key parts of Britain’s nuclear infrastructure, recommended building a new, larger fission reactor that would both manufacture plutonium for the military and provide heat to create steam for power generation. 

The project was given the go-ahead in 1953 with the building of Calder Hall on the Windscale site, the capitalist world’s first nuclear power station. It was opened in 1956, two years after the Soviet Union’s Obninsk power station. Despite a planned lifetime of 20 years it generated electricity until it was closed in 2003.

US non-cooperation meant that Britain had to develop its own nuclear technology. Nuclear reactors all require a way of controlling the fission (the “moderator”) and a mechanism for transferring the heat from the fission to a boiler to create steam (a coolant). As in a conventional power station the steam drives a turbine which turns an alternator to generate electricity.

Without access to enriched uranium and heavy water, controlled by the USA, Britain had to choose the combination of a graphite moderator and a gas-cooled reactor, a design known as Magnox. At the time there seemed no disadvantage to this design compared with the water-cooled reactors used in the USA, but it became a dead-end later on.

‘US non-cooperation meant that Britain had to develop its own nuclear technology…’

In the early stages, the British electricity industry didn’t contribute to the project (indeed, initially all of Calder Hall’s electrical output was used in making plutonium). The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) controlled military and civil nuclear matters. It was independent, received government funds through a separate “vote” and could take rapid decisions.

By the middle to late 1950s, nuclear energy looked more appealing. Coal then couldn’t meet power needs and imported oil was expensive. The Suez crisis of 1956 exposed the dangers of reliance on external oil supplies. A government working party backed nuclear power for the future. That declaration was often repeated subsequently but in reality it was never effectively pursued.

Hurrying into plutonium production while in possession of incomplete knowledge was potentially dangerous. That became clear in October 1957 when one of the Windscale air-cooled uranium piles caught fire. That led to a serious leak of radiation over the Lake District and a radioactive plume that spread across Europe.

Fortunately air filters had been installed on the chimneys, which greatly reduced the impact of the accident. They were added only late in construction and at considerable cost, on the insistence of nuclear scientist John Cockroft. Without the filters large parts of the north-west of England may have become uninhabitable. The full official report was kept secret and only released in 1992, but the fire did lead to safety improvements at the Magnox power stations.

The Central Electricity Generating Board was created in 1957 to run the nationalised electricity industry. Six nuclear Magnox power stations were constructed in the mid-sixties, then the largest programme in the world. Later the number of nuclear power stations increased to ten.

Energy security

The Magnox programme was justified mainly on energy security grounds, though by the early 1960s both coal and oil were relatively abundant. The CEGB ran the Magnoxes, which performed reliably and safely over the next four decades. Today they are now silent architectural reminders of a more optimistic past. 

By the mid-1960s the British government decided on a second nuclear programme based on advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs). That was ultimately a disastrous decision. The AGRs were built late, hugely over budget and never performed at the level they were designed for. By now the USA was marketing water-cooled reactors, which were technologically in the lead and cheaper to build.

Criticisms of the AGRs grew in the 1970s. The Conservative government of 1979 decided all nuclear stations would have pressurised-water reactors (PWRs). Publicly, government declarations were pro-nuclear and anti-coal (mainly because of their hatred of the miners’ union). But there was little new nuclear power construction for two decades under either Conservative or Labour governments.

The Sizewell B nuclear power plant from the PWR programme, built between 1987 and 1995, is in fact the most recent nuclear plant to be constructed in Britain. Significantly in 1989 the energy industry was privatised. Strategic national consideration of the need for nuclear power lessened under the pressure of commercial interests.

• In the past forty years there has been little progress in developing a revitalised nuclear power industry based on British know-how and technological expertise. Our longer article online at www.cpbml.org.uk focuses on these missed opportunities.