ON THIS DAY    17 October      Graphics version >>   BBC News >>
Search ON THIS DAY by date   
  Go back one day Go forward one day

Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
1956: Queen switches on nuclear power

The Queen has opened the world's first full-scale nuclear power station, at Calder Hall in Cumberland.

A crowd of several thousand people gathered to watch the opening ceremony, which was also attended by scientists and statesmen from almost 40 different countries.

The Lord Privy Seal, Richard Butler, described the event as "epoch-making".

He added, "It may be that after 1965 every new power station being built will be an atomic power station."


"This new power, which has proved itself to be such a terrifying weapon of destruction, is harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community. "

The Queen

Sir Edwin Plowden, chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, also stressed the ground-breaking nature of the new power station.

"Nothing that comes after will be able to detract from the importance of this first great step forward," he said.

Her Majesty the Queen gave her speech in the shadow of the massive chimneys of the Windscale plant, where explosives were made for Britain's first atomic bomb, and she gave a timely reminder of the more sinister origins of the technology.

"This new power, which has proved itself to be such a terrifying weapon of destruction," she said, "is harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community."

At 1216 GMT, she pulled the lever which would direct electricity from the power station into the National Grid for the first time.

A large clock on the wall of the power station registered the first kilowatts of energy to be produced.

The town of Workington, 15 miles (24 km) up the Cumberland coast from Calder Hall, became the first town in the world to receive light, heat and power from nuclear energy.

Within four hours, the first nuclear-powered electricity was reaching London.

The government expects to save about 40 million tons of coal by investing in the new technology, and it is planning to supply about 10% of the country's electricity needs from nuclear power within less than 10 years.

Calder Hall is known as a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor, and uses the nuclear reaction in uranium rods to generate power.

Two other nuclear power stations are already under construction - one alongside the existing Calder Hall plant, to be known as Calder Hall B, and the other at Chapel Cross in Scotland.

In Context
A further nine nuclear power stations were built across Britain over the next 10 years. The technology came to supply about a quarter of Britain's electricity needs.

At its peak, Calder Hall generated four times as much electricity as it did in 1956, although by modern standards its size - 196 megawatts - is considered small.

Calder Hall closed in 2003, after more than 40 years providing electricity, but three years earlier than planned.

The initial optimism over nuclear power began to falter just a year after Calder Hall was opened, when a fire broke out in the nearby nuclear complex then known as Windscale, but now called Sellafield.

Environmental campaigners also began to highlight the problems of disposing of nuclear waste.

Then came the fire at Three Mile Island in the USA in 1979, followed by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, and public confidence in nuclear power was badly shaken.

The government's Energy White Paper, published in 2003, described nuclear power as economically "unattractive", and concentrated instead on the potential for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

A programme is now under way to shut down many of the oldest nuclear power stations, and by 2023, only 4% of Britain's electricity will come from nuclear power.

But in 2005 the Labour Government put the issue of nuclear power back on the agenda, calling for a public debate about its future, because of concern over the shortage of fossil fuels.


Web Links
UK Atomic Energy Authority |  BNFL |  Energy White Paper 2003
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites
Search ON THIS DAY by date   
  Go back one day Go forward one day

Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
^^ Back to top |