WHEN Queen Elizabeth opened it on October 17, 1956, it was the first commercial nuclear power station in the world, pointing the way to the provision of cheap, clean energy. This week Calder Hall in Cumbria closed down four years ahead of schedule because it had become too expensive to run. Although Calder Hall pioneered the production of nuclear power for the electricity grid, that was never its first purpose; several years after it started operating the government was forced to admit that its ability to turn uranium into plutonium for Britain's nuclear weapons programme was its main purpose. It produced only 196 megawatts of electricity, enough for 200'000 homes but obtained at uncompetitive cost. Calder Hall was followed by ten similar power stations of which only five are still in operation and all are due to be closed by 2008. Despite the early lead which Britain took in the use of nuclear power for energy generation, it has never developed the industry on the scale that is found elsewhere, in France and Japan for instance. The connection to nuclear weapons production has always been controversial in Britain but the ultimate problem may have been contained in the announcement that it will take 100 years to make the Calder Hall site safe.


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