With dozens of new facilities under construction around the world, is nuclear power about to enjoy one of the periodic upturns that have punctuated its chequered history?
The £10bn finance package announced by the British government last month as part of negotiations, which could see French electricity generator EDF build the first new UK nuclear power station in a generation at Hinkley Point, is the latest chapter in a story that goes back more than 70 years.
1 Calder Hall in Cumbria, England, became the first nuclear power station to deliver electricity in commercial quantities when it was connected to the UK grid in August 1956. Its four Magnox reactors were each capable of generating 60MW.
2 The world’s first nuclear reactor had been built in the 1940s in Stagg Field at the University of Chicago by Enrico Fermi’s team. The seventh level, seen here, was nothing but ‘dead’ graphite, containing no uranium. Once a critical mass of pieces containing uranium were assembled, a controlled and very low-powered nuclear reaction started and the Chicago Pile-1 achieved criticality on 2 December 1942. It laid the groundwork for the Manhattan Project, which made enriched uranium and built large reactors to breed plutonium for use in the first nuclear weapons.
3 In Northern France, Gravelines began operation in 1980 and in August 2010 delivered its 1,000 billionth kWh of electricity. The fifth largest nuclear power station in the world and the biggest in Western Europe, it contributes to the 75 per cent of all the country’s electricity that comes from nuclear reactors.
4 Construction of the 5MW Obninsk nuclear power plant in the Kaluga region of the then USSR began on 1 January 1951. Startup was on 1 June 1954, and the plant remained active until it was finally shut down in April 2002.
5 The potential risks of nuclear were demonstrated when a fire broke out at the Tokyo Electric Power Co 8TW Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Japan on 16 July 2007, following an earthquake in Niigata Prefecture.
6 May 1956, and with the first atomic pile at Calder Hall working, various checks and measurements are being made ahead of the plant’s formal commissioning. It was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 17 October 1956 and when it closed in March 2003 had been in use for for nearly 47 years
7 Opponents of nuclear often raise the question of whether there’s an effective way of dealing with waste. In the USA, the high-level storage facility at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State is one destination for the industry’s by-products.