Alchemy and imperial delusion: the ideological spell of nuclear power. Part 1

After seventy years of scientific effort and countless investments, the holy grail of ‘electricity too cheap to meter’ remains as elusive as ever. Here Brian Parkin searches for reasons why a persistently failed energy technology is still so important to the British ruling class.

Sellafield – photo by Malcolm Neal, used under CC licence.

The Attlee Labour government of 1945-50 was committed to both a radical social policy programme at home and a colonial-imperialist continuity project abroad – the latter very much approved of by the British ruling class. Before the end of World War II, allied summit conferences at Moscow, Tehran and Yalta had produced a post-war agreement on ‘spheres of influence’ where the USA, USSR and Britain would control their respective allies, colonies, protectorates or dominions as spoils from their joint wartime efforts. But this was not an alliance of equals: the USSR was economically devastated, Britain was economically exhausted, while the USA was on the edge of what was to become the biggest and most protracted economic boom in the history of capitalism.

The USA had also, via the ‘Manhattan programme’, acquired the most devastating weapon ever – the nuclear bomb. Despite the involvement of UK scientists, the USA was initially not prepared to share its bomb making secrets with Britain. And furthermore, the USA was against the UK and France retaining their colonial empires.

A whiff of hydrogen

A clandestine British nuclear programme had begun in 1940, and with the involvement of British scientists in the US nuclear project, the idea of ‘catching up with the Yanks’ almost counterbalanced the losing of empire, and led to hopes of a recovery of imperial status by other means. So it was not long before construction began on a nuclear facility at Windscale in Cumbria (renamed Sellafield in 1981), along with what was initially the highly secret facility at Aldermaston in Berkshire.

These developments arose from a secret decision taken by a small meeting – GEN 75, in January 1947 – when despite an austerity economy it was agreed that the UK should defy the USA’s intransigence and go ahead with its own nuclear weapons programme. As Ernest Bevan, Foreign Secretary and former right wing union boss said: We’ve got to have this thing over here. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it!’

By 1950 a reactor at Windscale had produced highly fissionable uranium235 (the ‘active ingredient’ of an atomic bomb), and by 1952 had produced enough for the first British bomb test on October 3 that year. Then, by stepping up its Magnox reactor programme, Britain was able to produce sufficient plutonium239 for a hydrogen bomb test on May 15 1957. But this came at a high cost. On October 10 1957 Unit One of a Magnox reactor core became over-critical, to the extent that its graphite core caught fire, and for three days released the highly dangerous isotope iodine131 to the outside atmosphere, which on a conservative estimate caused over 400 cancer deaths.

News of this incident was kept confidential, mainly to prevent information getting to a USA government unconvinced that Britain would be a reliable nuclear partner. This was a particularly important as by then a considerable proportion of the plutonium for the USA’s weapons programme was coming from the UK Magnox reactors.

Meanwhile…British insecurity

In 1945, largely at the instigation of the USA, the United Nations held its inaugural session in California. As the war’s biggest victor, the USA wanted to legislate for a world fit for American capitalism. The United Nations gave this a semblance of legitimacy, though it was dominated by a Security Council mostly composed of American allies. And although Britain was on the Council, fear for its fading imperial lustre spurred the Labour government to press ahead to become a paid-up member of the ‘nuclear club’.

But nuclear club membership was nothing without a means of delivery. So in 1947 the government instructed the Royal Air Force to issue specifications and tenders for a new generation of jet-powered long-range, high altitude bombers capable of carrying and dropping nuclear bombs on what, by now, were going to be Russian targets.

Thunderbirds are GO! Britain’s ‘V Force’

By 1952 the UK’s first nuclear-capable bomber – the Vickers Valiant – flew. At that time, the intention was to keep at the forefront of a Western first-strike nuclear alliance, while never forgetting the longer-range requirements of rule over what was left of the empire, and the Commonwealth – hence the presence of V bombers in Rhodesia (the colonial name for Zimbabwe) and Malaysia as late as the mid-1960’s.

By 1964, the RAF had an incredible 159 total of Valiant, Vulcan and Victor bombers, each capable of being airborne in three minutes and in Russian airspace within 72 minutes. However, Russian air-defences had improved to the extent that the V bombers’ maximum altitudes rendered them sitting ducks by around 1965. So then a medium-range series of joint US/UK air launched missiles was considered, only for the US to pull out of the project. The Vulcans last flew in the Falklands war in 1982, carrying out a long-range and not very successful bombing of Port Stanley Airport, before being taken out of service.

‘Atoms for Peace’

On August 27 1957, a small Magnox reactor on the Calder Hall site at Windscale had some of its secondary coolant steam diverted through a turbine to mark the beginning of the world’s civil nuclear power age. The initial contribution to the National Grid was an intermittent four megawatts (then enough to power some 4,000 homes). The idea of nuclear power from a weapons grade plutonium reactor had arisen due to the sheer waste heat given off, and the huge effort required in cooling the process to a safe level.

This ‘seminal’ event was the first step to what was untruthfully called a peaceful civil nuclear power age. What it rather was, was the continuation of a plutonium programme with a significant power byproduct. The military-civil linkage was still intact – as was the superpower nuclear delusion which had spawned it.

Hedging the nuclear bet

The modest Calder Hall event gave rise to a speculative frenzy of nuclear optimism. The very idea of power from nuclear fission created an aura of technological supremacy, and the illusion that Britain could become a leadership nation unafraid of the challenges of power and the military means of exercising it. Because something like that kind of ideological hubris must have fuelled what came next.

In 1959 it was agreed to proceed with a nuclear power programme with a technology ‘proved’ by the Magnox experience at Windscale. This meant a generation of new reactors fuelled by ‘natural’ uranium with graphite moderated cores and with a primary carbon dioxide cooling system. But although the main aim of the new Magnox stations was the production of electricity, some plutonium would be a secondary byproduct.

At this point it is worth recalling the political/economic situation the fading British empire had to face. In 1956, a failed military intervention by Britain and France had failed to resolve the ‘Suez crisis’, sparked by the fear of losing of the Suez canal as a gateway to Asia and Gulf oil supplies. At this point a government committee decided that for energy security reasons, it was decided that Britain would require 6,000 megawatts of nuclear capacity by 1965.

This bizarre reasoning – Britain did not use oil for power generation – was primarily rooted in a ruling class paranoia, which saw nuclear power capacity as protection against a possible miners’ strike. Here nuclear power provided balm to a fading imperial delusion and a deep and abiding fear of organised labour. In Part 2 we shall see how ignorance, hubris and fear continue to fuel the British nuclear tragi-comedy.

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