Atoms for Peace - the world's first commercial use of nuclear powered electricity - Shippingport Atomic Power Station 17-12-57
On October 17th 1956 at 12.16 GMT the Queen pushed a lever, a clock ticked round and Calder Hall - in what the Lord Privy Seal, Rab Butler described as an "epoch making" event, sent the first commercial nuclear powered electricity to the National Grid. It was of course a mere dribble of power that left the plant , most was consumed on site in the rest of the nuclear bomb factory.
All this was of course a giant hoax, a publicity stunt - although the Engineer in recording the event did say ..." The reactor is designed for the production of plutonium as well as the generation of electricity".
It was also a vainglorious attempt to forge ahead of US know how and show that the UK was alone in taming this awesome technology , turning swords into ploughshares and nuclear plants producing the familiar bounties of electricity. The fact that it was a nuclear bomb factory was very carefully concealed from the public.
Windscale , of which Calder Hall was part , was in fact a massive nuclear weapons factory which had been funded secretly after the end of the war as a result of a decision in January 1947 by the Labour Government to to produce materials for nuclear weapons, principally plutonium.
A decision forced on them by the United States ban on the release of atomic technology to other powers as a direct result of the passage by the United States of the Atomic Energy Act 1946 or the McMahon Act (Senator Brien McMahon, Dem. Con. the chair of the United States Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy - he also established what was to become the Peace Corps) - it was passed 265-79 signed by President Harry Truman on August 1, 1946 and it went into effect on January 1, 1947.
In 1946 work began at the former Royal Ordnance factory at Sellafield to build two reactors, on a site renamed as Windscale, to produce plutonium for the UK weapons program. Pile No. 1 began operating in October 1950, Pile No. 2 started up 8 months later and plutonium for the first British bomb was available in March 1952.
In 1953 the first plans were made for Calder Hall at Risley for a plant with 4 Magnox air cooled reactors )Magnox = Magnesium Alloy used for the finned fuel canisters) and 3 1/2 years later the Queen performed the opening magic - another one opened later at Chapelcross.
Almost exactly a year later Windscale Pile No. 1 caught fire on Thursday 10 October 1957 - many of Lord Patel's generation this led to the disposal down the drains of CUmberland milk - which of course served to spread the nucleotide over an even wider area - even if it did stop children drinking it.
In 1953, US President Eisenhower made alandmark speech about Atoms for Peace speech to the United Nations. Duquesne Light Company near Pittsburgh suggested building a nuclear power plant and these were adiopted by Admiral Rickover - weeks later plans for the Shippingport Atomic Power Station were put into action.
On Labor Day, 1954 President Eisenhower remotely initiated the first scoop of dirt at the ceremony. After 32 months and the cost of US$72.5 Mn. the reactor went critical at 4:30 am and on the 2nd December 1957 and 15 days later on the 17th the first power was generated - by modern standards it was small and generated just 60 MWe.
President Eisenhower opened the Shippingport Atomic Power Station on in May the following year and made a radio address .
Perhaps to aggravate his allies in London he carefully described the plant as :
... the first of the world's large-scale nuclear power stations exclusively devoted to peaceful purposes.
It represents the hope of our people that the power of the atom will be able to open up a vast new world of peaceful development--that atomic power will ease mankind's burdens and provide additional comforts for human living.
The plant was shut down on October 1st 1982 and at a cost of nearly US£100 Mn was dismantled (the 956-ton reactor pressure vessel/neutron shield tank assembly was lifted out of the containment building in one piece) and buried in Washington State.
See Monday, November 05, 2007 How the US came to make and love the Bomb