Sound and vision blog

04 July 2019

Chernobyl: Perspectives from the British Nuclear Industry

Photograph of Peter Vey at the Chernobyl nuclear power station complex in 1988Peter Vey at the Chernobyl nuclear power station complex in 1988, as part of an international delegation led by Lord Marshall. Courtesy of Peter Vey

A new television series has once again brought public attention to the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, when an explosion in one of the RMBK reactors caused one of the worlds worst nuclear disasters. Today, our attitudes toward nuclear power are forever overshadowed by Chernobyl, and it’s easy to forget that the early days of nuclear power were marked by tremendous optimism. In 1956 the Queen opened Calder Hall, the first full size nuclear power station to provide electricity to the public in the world, declaring that the terrible power of the atom bomb had now been, “harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community.” Nuclear power, futuristic and apparently clean and economical, promised an age of “electricity too cheap to meter.” Yet gradually the mood changed, as Granville Camsey, a nuclear engineer caught up in the early optimism, and then the backlash against nuclear power, recalled in his interview for An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry.

"It became very difficult to say you were a nuclear engineer" (C1495/09/05)

The Chernobyl disaster was a major issue for the British Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), which was trying to obtain permission to build a new nuclear plant at Sizewell to join the fleet of older reactors it already operated at the time. In this age of Cold War secrecy, the Soviets initially attempted to cover-up the disaster. But European nuclear power stations started to detect inexplicably high levels of radiation as a radioactive cloud spread across Europe. With the Soviet Union underplaying the severity of the situation, other countries scrambled to figure out what had happened, reassure the public, and to assess the risks of a Chernobyl happening at their own nuclear plants. As recalled by Peter Vey, head of public relations at the CEGB, the days after Chernobyl were very busy ones, particularly for the CEGB chairman and nuclear scientist Walter Marshall.

"The cloud by then had reached Dungeness" (C1495/51/11)

In the aftermath of Chernobyl, nuclear industries around the world united to try and improve the safety of nuclear power stations. Two years after the disaster Peter Vey travelled to the Soviet Union as part of a delegation visiting to sign a nuclear safety agreement. The trip included a visit to Chernobyl itself.

"People had just dropped everything" (C1495/51/11)

Chernobyl, and the later Fukishima disaster in Japan, had a profound effect on the nuclear industry across the world. Although the high cost of nuclear power has been a major factor in there being no new nuclear plants built since Chernobyl, higher safety standards and negative public opinion have undoubtedly been a factor too. Various countries have attempted to phase out nuclear power. No new nuclear plants have been built in Britain since Sizewell B was completed in 1995, and the planned Hinkley C station under development still faces uncertainties. Most of Britain’s existing nuclear stations, built between the 1960s and 1980s, are due to run at least another decade or more. When they are finally shut down, radioactive contamination means they will not be simply demolished, but carefully dismantled and decontaminated. The most radioactive parts will be sealed up and left as nuclear landmarks for decades, until they become safe enough to remove entirely. In this short video, former manager Peter Webster explores the silent control room and reactor hall of one such decommissioned station at Oldbury near Bristol.

If you would like to know more about the history of the public relations of nuclear power, you might be interested in this academic article by Tom Lean and Sally Horrocks based on An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry.

Blog by Tom Lean, project interviewer for An Oral History of British Science and An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry.

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