Memories of Calder Hall

On 17 October 1956, Queen Elizabeth II – then four years in her reign – opened Calder Hall. Sixty years on, times have changed, both for the monarchy and the Sellafield site.

Here we look back at memories of the opening the world’s first commercial nuclear power station, its 47 years of operations, and the decommissioning since that point, with employees past and present.

Trevor Purnell worked at Sellafield for 39 years, and was at the official opening of Calder Hall in 1956:

“My abiding memory is one of great excitement. We all remember the claim about cheap electricity forever more, but of course, that didn’t factor in storage and disposal costs for the waste. But that doesn’t detract from the sense of pride we all felt for the achievements involved with Calder Hall. We were all caught up in the euphoria.

“On the day the Queen opened Calder Hall, I was stood around 30 yards away. After the opening we were allowed to go and meet her. I remember watching the ‘pseudo’ meter start to move once the Queen flicked the switch, and the cheer from the crowd that followed. Little did many of those in attendance realised that the station was already providing power to the National Grid!

“I spent 39 years at Sellafield and saw lots of changes in my time. Thinking back to the construction of Calder Hall, it really was a great achievement. I remember seeing pioctures of the huge pieces of kit being delivered through Calder Bridge via Knocking Hill. I was blown away by this, and the famous precision transport movements through Egremont, as well as the other engineering feats displayed at Calder Hall.”

Steve Bewsher worked in Calder Hall from 1978 to 192, and then again during decommissioning in 2004:

“Calder Hall was a station with a sense of pride. We all had the view that if we were to do a job, we were to do our best. This was shown in things like the floors of the turbine hall being polished, the turbines themselves being polished with car wax, and even the brass fixtures and fittings receiving the ‘brasso’ treatment. Our chief engineer, Percy Gill, had the highest standards, and signed off all work personally. In other words, it had to be done right.

“We had a family atmosphere with a ‘work-hard, play-hard’ ethos. So whilst we might be working on the turbines in a sweltering turbine hall during summer – when there was less demand for power or outside freezing working on the cooling towers in winter – when there was less demand for cooling water, we also managed to play cricket and football (using goalposts we manufactured ourselves), during lunch breaks. This only helped to strengthen team spirit.

“Calder Hall often felt like a different part of the Sellafield site – separated as it was, by the River Calder. But during shutdowns, employees came to join us from around the site and were quickly welcomed as part of a wider team.”

Joe Stalker, echoes Steve’s views:

“We could all write a book of incriminating, funny or non-PC things that took place at Calder, but I’m not sure how many you’d print! It was as much the people as the place – including some amazing characters – sadly most of them have passed away, some legends, I don’t need to name them but they will never be forgotten.”

Susie Potter worked on the demolition of the iconic Calder Hall cooling towers in 2007:

“The day the towers came down was amazing. There was a real sense of anticipation on the day in both demolition HQ where the gold command centre was based and across the whole site, from the sentries round the exclusion zone to the people monitoring the affected plants and those in the control centre but we’d done so much planning and preparation that everything went incredibly smoothly; the implosion itself was almost an anti-climax.

“Projects like the cooling tower demolition don’t come along very often and to have been part of the project team was an incredible experience; definitely a career highlight. I’ll still be telling people about the day I helped blow up Sellafield when I’m 90!”

Dave Minshall was inspired to move to Cumbria and work at Sellafield by Calder Hall’s power generation firsts:

“Throughout my days trying to pick the best career path, the realisation that Calder was the first to generate commercial Nuclear Power, was dramatic and inspiring.  When time and opportunities aligned, this vision of the future was instrumental in my decision to move to Cumbria and join the nuclear industry.

“I would like to think our country continues to include nuclear in the ‘power mix’ and attract the next generation to become nuclear engineers, replacing guys like me, given I’m shortly to retire.”

Tracey West’s family farmed near to Calder Hall:

“I remember Calder Hall and the cooling towers from the days of my youth when I used to visit my cousins – for many years their parents farmed at Midtarn Farm which is next to Sellafield.

“Whether we were in the garden, in the house or in a field, Sellafield and Calder Hall was always in view and it became the norm. This photo captures the cooling towers, which were always in sight, and were often used as a means of weather forecasting!

“It was a happy family life, they had pets and ponies and farmed like any other farmer with family and friends often visiting. Having Sellafield on the doorstep didn’t affect the way they farmed and we all have good memories of growing up there.”

Neil Edmondson worked at Calder Hall as a health physics monitor from 1992 to 1994 and then as a plant improvements and human performance manager from 2008 to 2015. He has two main memories:

“My first and proudest memory is when Calder Hall won the URS Safe Facility of the Year award in 2012 – the first time it was ever awarded outside of the United States. This was a massive achievement.

“My second, more amusing memory is of when I discovered the secret toilet that was built exclusively for the Queen when she opened the station in 1956. I won’t reveal now where that is though!

Ian Teasdale and a number of his engineering colleagues considered one of the well-known ‘urban myths’ about Sellafield – whether the design of the plant was influenced by the size of the roads in the area, and a particularly tricky corner in Egremont.

Having studied textbooks from the era, considered the technology involved and the economic and political drivers, they conclude that 18ft was, perhaps helpfully, the greatest diameter of heat exchanger that could be produced in the furnace and was also the limit on the narrowest piece of road.

Electrical output for the reactors was given as a design aim, and the heat exchangers were designed around this.