Listing the Titans
They may not be conventionally beautiful, but huge feats of construction are often awe-inspiring
The Daily Telegraph
November 27, 2006
By Clive Aslet
NUCLEAR Power Stations may not be conventionally beautiful, but they conform to the aesthetic theorist (and Tory apologist) Edmund Burke's concept of the sublime: the visitor experiences a frisson of pleasurable trepidation from the sheer, overwhelming scale of them.
In this way they are the counterparts of the pyramids, Hadrian's Wall, Dover Castle, Bazalgette's sewers and the Thames Barrier: titanic feats of construction whose achievement continues to awe the beholder.
It might have been better for some conservationists - particularly in view of their coastal settings - if they had never been built, but the fact is that they were.
Buildings are protected on grounds of ''special architectural or historic interest''.
Clearly there is no doubt that the early nuclear power stations qualify under the second of those two criteria.
Opened exactly 50 years ago, Calder Hall, on the seaward verge of the Lake District National Park, was the first nuclear power station in the world to produce commercial electricity. Building had begun in 1953, six years after Prime Minister Clement Attlee had ordered the construction of a plant at Windscale, next door, to produce plutonium for Britain's atomic bomb. At the opening ceremony, the Queen commented that ''the new power, which has proved itself to be such a terrifying weapon of destruction, is harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community'''.
Always eager to embrace new architectural forms, the German Modernist Sir Nikolaus Pevsner observed, in the Cumberland and Westmoreland volume of his Buildings of England series, that the ''noble shape of cooling towers can never fail to impress''. There were two pairs of cooling towers at Calder Hall, as well as three reactor buildings - even Pevsner calls them ''blocky''.
To this ensemble is joined the buildings at Windscale, and the golf ball of the Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor, built in 1963, which is now the most visually distinctive part of the site.
There was nothing specially innovative about the cooling towers, but the interior is a complete period piece, with cranes and generators in pink, yellow and light blue - the pastel colours favoured by the 1951 Festival of Britain. It is easy to imagine a James Bond villain, such as Goldfinger, striding through the control room.
Even today, Dounreay power station in Caithness is an extraordinary sight, squatting on the northernmost shoreline of Britain - the enormous, eau-de-nil sphere of its reactor rising above straw bales in the neighbouring fields.
The architect, Richard S Brocklesby, created a geometric intervention in the landscape, as startling as the contemporary Mk1 Jodrell Bank telescope in Cheshire. Protection for Calder Hall and Dounreay comes at a time when Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's coal-fired Bankside Power Station is enjoying new life as one of London's most popular cultural attractions, Tate Modern.
As part of the drive to popularise nuclear energy, both Sellafield and Dounreay have visitor centres.
If, as a result of scheduling, they are opened further to the public, they will stand in the tradition Ironbridge Gorge, various coal and slate mines in Wales, the Lion Salt Works in Cheshire, the Railway Museum in York and the canal network as ex-industrial tourist sites - a memory of the time when British nuclear scientists led the world.