Historically Speaking: First Nuclear Power Plant
On this day in 1956, Queen Elizabeth II consecrated the world’s first commercial nuclear power plant of Calder Hall in Cumbria, England. It was a landmark day in the advancement of energy engineering, and marked the beginning of a scientific quest to end humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels. While the first electricity-generating plant was opened in Arco, Idaho in 1951, the opening of this commercial plant was thought to herald a new age of nuclear power used by everyday people rather than the government, and in doing so, the opening of the Calder Hall plant helped spawn a Utopian vision of the future.
“This station was the pioneer,” said former station manager John Vlietstra. ”Its long and reliable lifetime has proved that nuclear power makes a real contribution to the country’s needs for electricity. Since 1956 it has been producing greenhouse gas-free electricity for around 200,000 homes.”
Given how wars are usually the byproduct of humanity’s need to allocate limited, depletable energy resources towards individual sovereign states, the opening of the plant was a cause for jubilation, and seen at the time as the dawn of a new atomic-powered age in which nations need not squabble over the control of fossil fuels. People would be provided with electricity that was billed as “too cheap to meter.” Coupled with the burgeoning space age, nuclear power imbued our collective imagination with a rosy-eyed view of the future seen in movies and TV shows of the time, such as the Jetsons and Star Trek, in which limitless energy powered technology that would fulfill every need imaginable.
In the end, of course, the benefit provided by nuclear power has proven to be outweighed by its cost. Radioactive waste and the potential for meltdowns has showed that fission reactors as an unsafe form of energy production, as evidenced by the disasters of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi. As a result, the construction of new nuclear power plants has slowed to a dribble, and many areas have outright banned it as a form of energy production. The Calder Hall plant itself is now in the process of being decommissioned, and its current state is a manifestation of how far our attitude towards nuclear power have shifted in the last half-century.
But what is most compelling about the rise and fall of the fission reactor as a means of generating electricity for commercial use is its symbolism; just eleven years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which the world was left in a terrified stupor at our potential for destruction, we instead turned this same atomic process towards saving the human race rather than destroying it. While it is certainly common for scientific breakthroughs made by the military to find use outside of war, few can rival the fission reactor in terms of potential for lethality becoming favored less than its potential for aiding humanity. The fact that this technology at one time threatened the future of humanity, but instead saw widespread use as a means of accelerating our progress on a more idyllic course speaks volumes on our inherent desire to ensure that the world of tomorrow will be better than the world of today.
However, the holy grail of physics today is the creation of a fusion reactor, rather than a fission. As we reported earlier this month, recent breakthroughs in fusion technology indicate that the creation of a stable fusion power reactor, potentially the most important scientific breakthrough of all time, could be seen in as little as 15 years. If we look at science as a continuim, than the harms done in the atomic age may one day be seen as stepping stones towards a world powered by a clean, limitless power source. So perhaps the optimism seen at the Calder Hall plant’s inauguration wasn’t naive after all, but just a little premature.