Calder Hall and British-American nuclear diplomacy

by Jay Richardson
17 October 2022

The Queen delivers an opening speech at Calder Hall.

On 17 October 1956, Queen Elizabeth II opened Calder Hall, the world’s first commercial nuclear power station, at Sellafield, on the western coast of Cumbria. The two Windscale Piles preceded it in 1950 and ‘51. Both produced plutonium-239 for early British nuclear weapons.

British-American-Canadian cooperation had underpinned the Manhattan Project, but just over a year after Roosevelt’s death, the McMahon Act passed Congress and the war-era collective research model more or less fell apart until a 1958 amendment under Eisenhower.

In the immediate post-war period … the U.S. government rapidly moved towards the view that America’s monopoly of atomic weapons should be preserved for as long as possible. … The joint chiefs of staff [of the U.S. Military] believed that Britain could not make a significant contribution to ‘the atomic potential of the allied powers’, would be an unwelcome competitor for raw materials to make nuclear weapons and was a security risk in the light of the arrest of Klaus Fuchs and the defection of Donald Maclean.

S.J. Ball, 1995:439

In the 2007 BBC documentary, Windscale: Britain’s Biggest Nuclear Disaster, Richard Rhodes describes America’s attitude as “the idea that the United States was the ideal caretaker for this profound and dangerous knowledge.”

U.S. control of nuclear technology threatened British defence interests and the Attlee govt put immense pressure on the AERE and Atomic Energy (Production), two agencies tasked with nuclear research and development—especially after the first Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. David Edgerton has discussed the post-war nuclear programme in terms of techno-nationalism, in Warfare State (2006) and elsewhere, especially in comparing defence spending with welfare spending.

Stability in the British nuclear strategy took a heavy blow on 10th October 1957, when one of the fuel channels in Pile 1 caught fire. They’re both still being decommissioned and it’s still the highest-rated UK nuclear accident ever (INES 5/7).

Construction of the Windscale Piles (1947-51).

Lorna Arnold characterised the fire as “an accident waiting to happen” out of the “over-loading of the organisation and staff” tasked with operating the Windscale Piles, writing 35 years after the accident that the fire “went to the very heart of Britain’s defence programme. It also threatened a new and glamorous civil technology. … The military and civil nuclear programmes were both of supreme importance to the British government.”

We now know of strontium-90 particle emissions since at least 1955. Two weeks after the accident, Cabinet decided not to publish the fallout report and even to recall copies and destroy proofs: Macmillan was already discussing nuclear military cooperation with Eisenhower. On 30th October Macmillan wrote: “The publication of the report, as it stands, might put in jeopardy our chance of getting Congress to agree to the President’s proposal” of amendments to the Atomic Energy Act that enacted greater transatlantic cooperation. The Act went through.

Calder Hall also made weapons-grade plutonium, but the government long refused to say how much, and didn’t admit to any kind of military use until 1961. Even 1956 newspaper accounts, mostly focused on energy supply, also rang with techno-nationalism: the Queen’s opening speech described nuclear as a “new power.” James Temperton wrote a great piece on the scale of the place for Wired in 2016.

The environmental fallout from the 1957 accident is a whole other history—but at the ’56 Calder Hall opening ceremony, people were already cautious of the Windscale Piles. They built Calder Hall with new reactor tech and risked it. ▪️

For further reading on risk narratives in nuclear energy, see J.D. Hamblin’s article in Environmental History, ‘Fukushima and the Motifs of Nuclear History.’