NNWE reflects on the 60th anniversary of Calder Hall nuclear power station

The 60th anniversary of the opening by Queen Elizabeth of Calder Hall on 17 October 1956 is a chance to reflect on how Britain threw away the leadership of one of the world’s great energy industries.

The construction and subsequent operation of the first nuclear power station in the world was a triumph for Britain’s engineers. Atomic power offered a glittering prospect of unlimited cheap electricity and represented a benign legacy from the development of nuclear weapons.

Civil nuclear power was to be a high tech industry which would create thousands of well-paid jobs and which had enormous export potential. But sadly that vision and the hopes that went with it were never fulfilled. Today leadership of the nuclear industry has departed from Britain and to a great extent has passed outside Europe too.

Several factors have contributed to the failure to exploit the opportunity which existed in the early years of the nuclear industry.

Firstly, by the end of the 1980s, Britain abandoned its own nuclear programme in favour of a dash for gas. With plentiful supplies of cheap gas available in the North Sea and long before concerns about climate change started to shape energy policy the attractions of gas as a way to generate electricity and heat homes were overwhelming.

Secondly, Britain had a propensity to prefer experimenting with first of a kind nuclear technologies instead of using tried and tested designs. This led to constant cost and time over-runs during plant construction. Scepticism about the ability of the nuclear industry to deliver on time and on budget grew.

Thirdly, even after the need for low carbon energy became widely recognised at the start of this century, the British government dithered about whether to start a new nuclear programme. Despite the fact that Britain’s nuclear scientists and engineers were the equal of any in the world Tony Blair and his ministers hesitated to authorise investment in new nuclear capacity. Their failure to do so allowed other countries to forge ahead.

Fourthly, the nuclear industry was forced to pay for rigorous and expensive safety measures which imposed standards on nuclear power plant, which other energy technologies were not required to meet.

Yet even today Britain still possesses enormous expertise, including in the field of decommissioning. Although many skilled workers have retired, highly qualified postgraduates are still attracted to the nuclear industry. Both decommissioning work and the task of waste storage offer the prospect of a lifetime career regardless of whether any more new nuclear plant is constructed.

The requirements of climate change and the necessity of moving to a low carbon electricity generation industry make it very likely that the world will now embark on a period of very considerable new nuclear investment. Whether Britain plays a big part in this remains to be seen. It is, however, beyond doubt that the opportunity exists.

A key factor in whether Britain seizes this chance will be whether the lower cost nuclear technologies now being developed outside Europe are embraced here at home. The decisions made by ministers in the next couple of years may be the decisive factor in determining the outcome.

Getting those decisions right could pay a handsome dividend in the form of affordable, secure, low carbon energy which will benefit domestic consumers and help industry become more competitive.