Calder Hall: The First Industrial Nuclear Power Plant

Edric Zeng
June 11, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: A black and white image of an active Calder Hall. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Calder Hall (Fig. 1) was the worlds first and oldest nuclear power plant used for commercial electricity generation. [1] Calder Hall, located in Sellafield, Cumbria, United Kingdom, closed in late March of 2003 after being active for 47 years since its opening in 1956. [2]

Originally marketed towards the public as the future of energy for the UK, in 1956 Calder Hall generated 180 megawatts of power, 40 megawatts of which ended up going into the industrial power complex. The idea was that one day nuclear power would produce energy too cheap to meter. [2] Nevertheless, the plant costed 35 million British pounds at the time of construction and closed in 2003 due to high maintenance costs and falling prices of electricity. [3] Additionally, it was revealed in 1961 that the true original purpose for the nuclear plant was not to generate electricity for public use, but to generate plutonium for nuclear weaponry. [4]


Despite originally planning to operate for 20 years, Calder Hall was expected to maintain operations until 2006. Lack of safety was not cited as a primary reason for the shutdown; deciding to close was reportedly an economic decision. [3]

Decommissioning power plants over the past several years, like Calder Hall, has entailed clearing remaining nuclear fuel, removing or decontaminating radioactive materials, and eventually turning the land over to be used for other purposes. The process is costly and can take up to several decades to complete. [4]

Calder Hall never became the low-cost, high-energy-output power plant people had hoped it would be. [3] Considering that the original plan for the plant was to be active for twenty years, and primarily for nuclear weapon development, initially at least, it is questionable whether the notion of energy too cheap to meter was perpetuated out of honest hope or, more likely, as propaganda to garner public support for nuclear development.

The First of Many

Regardless of the objective or subjective success of Calder Hall as a nuclear power plant, the United Kingdom appears to continue developing its legacy as an ambitious leader in nuclear energy as demonstrated by decades-old plans to build Hinkley Point C, a new 20-something billion British pound nuclear power plant. [5] Whether Hinkley Point C becomes this generations Calder Hall would be a question worth pondering before decisions for its creation are made.

© Edric Zeng. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] H. Shimp, "The Rise and Fall of Sellafield," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.

[2] P. Brown, "First Nuclear Power Plant to Close," The Guardian, 21 Mar 03.

[3] "Last Day for World's Oldest Reactor," BBC News, 31 Mar 03.

[4] C. Hopkins, "Three Mile Island," Physics 241, Stanford University, 2015.

[5] H. Watt, "Hinkley Point: The Dreadful Deal Behind the World's Most Expensive Power Plant," The Guardian, 21 Dec 17.