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0 Nuclear Dreams

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  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 20-03-2011
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We tend to fall in love with new technologies and to imagine that in no time they will solve all our problems. In the autumn of 1881 the pretty Surrey town of Godalming pioneered a public supply of electric lighting with a generator powered by a watermill on the river Wey. This, thought a correspondent for The Daily Telegraph was the beginning of a new gas and coal free era in civilisation. Wey ahead of his time, you might say: " It has been reserved for little Godalming to turn its river, the slender and rippling Wey, into a piece of machinery, and set it, just like any other mechanical servant to the task of lighting the streets....The days when gas companies can pump into our houses a noxious, explosive vapour like carburetted hydrogen, through uncertain machines called meters and charge an abnormally extortionate price for it are numbered. ...We shall not want the stoke and the collier so much if only the example set by the good people of Godalming be followed.

"The waterfalls, millheads and rivers will quietly be making all our electricity by day and we shall be consuming it as easily at night, or the winds and tides will be made to labour for us. Nature in all her varied moods will be called in to help us fight against the dark, and we shall be able eventually to turn night into day by the bright lights which Nature herself kindles for us. "

Sadly, when the river Wey flooded the generator ceased to turn and a steam engine had to be brought in. It was too expensive to run and within four years the gas lamps were back on in Godalming. This was a story I researched from my book Children of Light: how electricity changed Britain for ever. Another was the dawn of another technology which promised to free us from dependence on coal and gas: atomic energy.

At the official opening of Calder Hall, the world's first industrial scale nuclear power station in 1956, Her Majesty the Queen said: " As the power begins to flow into the National Grid all of us here know that we are present at the making of history. For many years now we have been aware that atomic scientists, by a series of brilliant discoveries, have brought us to the threshold of a new age. We have also known that, on that threshold, mankind has reached a point of crisis. Today we are, in a sense, seeing a solution of that crisis as 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. "

Calder Hall, sited in the wilds of Cumbria, was not, in fact, built just to produce electricity. Its reactors enriched uranium to supply the material for Britain's" independent nuclear deterrent. " The heat generated in this process was used to turn it into a glorified steam engine. Chapman Pincher, star reporter of the Daily Express, was there in October when the power was turned on: " The giant uranium furnace which has been producing high-pressure steam for more than a month was secretly linked with the dynamos last week. Top men of the project stood by as steam roared through the turbines, and the dynamos began to hum. As the output mounted, more lamps, more heaters, and more machines were fed with the new power on which so much of Britain's industrial future is being staked."

The production of what Pincher called " atomic electricity" was exciting, promising a bright future. There appeared to be no concerns about safety, which is perhaps surprising as Calder Hall was opened just eleven years after the terrible destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 by atomic bombs. Among scientists at the time there was a confidence that the dreadful power of nuclear fission could be reigned in and promised a wonderful future for the post-war world. " More power for Britain–in the nick of time" was the headline of a piece in the left-wing News Chronicle, the paper my parents used to buy, heralding a piece by the President-Elect of the British Association, Professor P.M.S. Blackett in which he wrote: " It is nearly true to say that the prosperity of any nation is proportional to the energy at its disposal Vastly more energy will be needed to maintain and advance the prosperity in the next few decades than can easily be got from coal. For the world as whole, nuclear power has come at the right time: for Britain only just in time. "

Professor Blackett waxed lyrical: " The world in which our children and grandchildren will live depends on our efforts, now and on the legacy of material power and scientific and technical know-how which we bequeath to them. The houses they will live in, the clothes they will wear, the health they will enjoy, the leisure in which they will be able to cultivate and appreciate the worthwhile and beautiful things of life......all these things will depend on our material command over nature and especially on the amount of energy we can extract from the natural world. "

Only a year after the inauguration of power at Calder Hall, a graphite core in the nearby Windscale reactor caught fire. The same children who had come to see the Queen open the nuclear power station were told they could not drink the milk from local dairy herds. High counts of radioactive iodine had been found and milk from farms within a radius of 200 miles of Windscale was poured down the drain.

Even after the fire and the milk ban, the leak of radioactivity was not considered to be very serious. Dr. W.G.Marley, head of the health physics division at the atomic research station at Harwell, was quoted in the Times as saying that the radioactivity resulting from the leak was considerably less than the “background level” in many other parts of the world–particularly India and Brazil. The chief atomic safety officer, Mr F.R. Farmer, reported that only two people living in the area had taken advantage of the offer to be medically examined. Only a few employees at Windscale were contaminated, said Mr Farmer, and in most cases a wash with soap and water was enough to give them a clean bill of health. What confidence there was then in the ability of scientists and engineers to tame the awful destructive power of nuclear fission. Certainly Japan, only a few years after the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was investing in nuclear power, confident that its peaceful use would not endanger the nation intent on rapid recovery and economic advance.