Brave new world

<strong>Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em> 17 January 1959</strong>
Britain’s first nuclear powe

Seascale is a tiny windswept township stuck bleakly on the Cumberland coast. Its few scattered shops shiver in the icy November blasts that sweep across the Irish Sea. Its railway station is hardly more than a coastal halt and its roads are still conditioned to the pattern of country lanes. One can understand why the mainstream of social and industrial development passed hastily by this lonely stretch of low land between the lakeland hills and the sea. Now its unimpressive days seem to be over.

Seascale is Tomorrow, just as Leeds, Barnsley and Manchester are Yesterday. We live in a new age, when the phials of energy which drive our civilisation come not from boiler houses beneath great, black, belching chimneys surrounded by a shambles of slums. Heat, energy, power - and the fuel for H-bombs - can be made in rural remoteness by stewing strips of uranium. This is something which is transforming not merely our technical thinking but our social attitudes as well.

The town lies by Calder Hall and Windscale. It is their "social centre". The two nuclear stations nestle like abandoned twin giants in an utterly isolated zone. The experts will tell you only two things are required for a modern nuclear site - water and isolation.

There are no railway sidings close by; no pile of coal in storage; no good roads for a transport system. So curious are we all to discover what this Tomorrow will be like, that some 1,500 tourists go to Calder Hall each month (from school parties to foreign princes) to pay homage to the world's first nuclear power station.

Ten years ago, Seascale had a population of 600. Now, there are 2,500 people living in one of the most curious communities in Britain. One in every eight of its population is a university graduate with nuclear statistics at his finger tips. Not even Aldous Huxley contemplated a higher average than this. At present, Seascale's most endearing quality is that sociologists do not seem to have discovered this fact - though one feels that any moment now a group from some social science department will swoop down with notebooks and slide rules to correlate this strange breed, which has one of the highest birth-rates of any community in the cvountry.

Far more interesting than this community's nuclear or human productive capacities is the way the new technocrats behave towards each other and towards the men around them with lesser skills but on whom they depend for the instrument-watching and other ancillary jobs. The very senior scientist was explaining how Calder Hall worked. Despite Calder's 550 workers, he explained, the installation could, in fact, be controlled by 50 men: the rest are all "necessary" but not "vital". He had an interesting Victorian way of describing his crew: "About 100 staff, and 450 industrials," he explained carefully.

A real caste distinction is already emerging in the nuclear age between those who watch the flickering dials on instruments and those who understand what it all means. Each of the four Calder Hall reactors has 2,500 instrument panels to itself. The workers - industrials, that is - wear their white coats, each with its little radiation recording-disc pinned to his lapel. Nobody seems at all concerned about radiation risks. All have complete confidence in the scientists, who have never let them down. The scientists, of course, like it that way.

At first Seascale was a town used almost exclusively to house the scientists. But eventually the local pub in Seascale was invaded by ex-miners from Whitehaven; engineers and labourers from Tyneside; electricians, instrument makers and policemen from North Lancashire - and still more graduates from Cambridge. The locals, like locals anywhere, wavered between resentment and welcome. They have now settled for welcome - except when a reactor breaks out in fire and the local milk is in danger of becoming contaminated.

Meanwhile habits are forming. The industrials had an interesting problem to resolve about shift working. From the outset they had started the day shift at 6am - the same as the day shift in the pits. But as more and more workers came in who were not ex-miners, the demand grew for a more conventional start time; 8am was the proposal. A ballot was held, and the six o'clockers won the day.

With the scientific staff, the problem of recruitment is still considerable. Salaries, in competition with outside industry, are one problem: the atom men have to accept rigorous civil service pay scales, and they don't like it. But equally there is the question of social isolation, of security and of all the other little problems that go with working on this project. Some scientists admit they chose the job because of the social isolation: they prefer the howling wind along the Cumberland coast to the smell and social necessities of an industrial city. Some go for an occasional pint; others don't bother. Some have TV and look at it; others just have it. Most are lost with their thoughts.

The abiding feeling is that each group knows its place; knows its caste if not its class setting; knows just how far it can go without anyone ever having to put up a notice amplifying the duties of "staff" and "industrials". Of course, this is only the transition to the atomic age.

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, 3 easy steps to save the planet