The world watched as Queen Elizabeth II welcomed the U.K.’s Atomic Age

September 19, 2022, 9:11AMANS Nuclear Cafe
Queen Elizabeth II visits Calder Hall for its ceremonial opening in 1956. (Photo: U.K. Nuclear Decommissioning Authority)

As citizens of the United Kingdom and others around the world mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth II, many have reflected on how the world has changed during the seven decades of the queen’s reign—the same decades that saw the rise of civilian nuclear power.

Calder Hall was already under construction at the Sellafield site in West Cumbria when Princess Elizabeth became queen in 1953. Queen Elizabeth traveled to the site in October 1956 and declared, in a televised ceremony, that “It is with pride that I now open Calder Hall, Britain’s first atomic power station.” Watch the fanfare in a historical clip uploaded to YouTube by Sellafield Ltd below.

The gas-cooled, graphite-moderated Magnox reactor was not only the first nuclear power plant in the U.K., it was also the first industrial-scale nuclear power plant in the world. Using a natural uranium metal fuel clad in a magnesium oxide alloy, the reactor had a power output of about 60 MWe and was originally designed to produce plutonium for the nation’s defense program as well as electricity.

Fusion, too: The following year, a visit by the queen and Prince Philip to the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell became entertaining newsreel footage. A highlight of the visit was the ZETA “circular pinch” fusion machine that was set to begin operating as the largest and most powerful fusion device in the world, but demonstrations of the facility’s glovebox manipulators stole the show--DISCLAIMER: some terminology used in the clip below may be offensive to some viewers.

While the Joint European Torus (JET) produced its first plasma at the Culham research center in June 1983, it wasn’t until April 9, 1984, that the queen officially opened the facility. In a four-minute video posted by the European Fusion Development Agreement (EFDA), the queen’s speech is bracketed by video footage set to music. Unlike the stirring symphonic tones that accompanied the footage of the Queen’s tours of Calder Hall and Harwell, however, this video features the unmistakable synthesizer sounds of the early 1980s.

Before an audience and visiting dignitaries, including French president Francois Mitterand, the queen delivered brief and arguably timeless remarks on fusion energy: “In an energy-hungry world, the JET may be a step along the road towards a virtually unlimited source of electric power. I am delighted to be able to applaud this magnificent technical achievement, the full potential of which is still to be revealed. . . . There is a long way to go before we will know for sure whether fusion can be used to generate electricity reliably and economically, and without harm to the environment. It is a challenge which will be a great stimulus to human ingenuity, and one which has already evoked from the project team a response of the highest quality.”

U.K. nuclear now: Nearly 66 years have elapsed since the queen ceremoniously opened Calder Hall. Power generation at the four-unit plant ended in 2003, and the last of the U.K.’s Magnox reactors was shut down in December 2015. The U.K. now hosts just nine operating power reactors, with two under construction and more in planning stages.

Almost four decades on, JET is still the largest operating fusion device in the world and is the only machine capable of operating with the deuterium-tritium fuel mix likely to be used in commercial fusion plants. The U.K.’s next step is STEP, the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production, a prototype plant that the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority plans to operate at one of five short-listed sites in the U.K. by the early 2040s.

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