The story of the inception of the Central Electricity Generating Board.
Produced courtesy of National Power PLC
The CEGB Story
By Rob Cochrane with additional research by Maryanna Schaefer 30th March 1990
Vesting Day marks the end of the CEGB after 32 years of service to the consumer. They were eventful years. We did not get everything right and no doubt, with hindsight, some things could have been done differently. On balance, however, I believe the CEGB did a good job.
As the last Chairman, I thought it would be wrong for the CEGB to pass away with no reminder of its work and achievements. This booklet, which looks at the work of the Board and its staff and tries to explain where it fits into the history of the industry, has been produced to commemorate the CEGB. It is intended to recall some of the Board’s achievements and the problems it faced. It is not meant as a work of reference for future historians, more a reminder of things past to all of us who worked for the Board.
With the electricity supply industry now entering a very different and in many ways exciting future I hope that when you glance through these pages, they will help you recall the way things were.
On behalf of the Board — and electricity consumers past and present — I thank you all for your hard work and commitment.
Chairman, Central Electricity
March 30, 1990
I am retiring after 42 years in the industry so I will not play an active role in the new industry, but I wish all of you in the successor companies the very best for the future.
By 1881 when Punch published this cartoon the baby created by Michael Faraday and others was beginning to be noticed. In that year, Godalming in Surrey had installed electric street lighting and King Steel and King Coal, the giants of the industrial revolution on which much of Britain’s prosperity was built, were right to ask what this new industry would become. Like Topsy it was to grow and grow . . . THE CEGB was “born lucky.” At least, that’s how it seemed in 1958 compared with the critical situation the industry had faced when it was nationalised just 10 years earlier. Then there had been a massive plant shortage. Power cuts were the order of the day. Maybe that wasn’t surprising. As Prime Minister Clement Attlee said: “You can’t fight a war and scrape down to the bottom of the barrel, then start up again as if nothing had happened.” But that was no consolation to people shivering in their homes or to the rest of industry trying to get back to peacetime production.
But by April, 1958, all that was forgotten. The difficulties and upheavals of nationalisation had been overcome. New stations had been brought into service. Supplies were back to normal. The new board could start planning confidently for the future, even if the staff still didn’t know of the changes the latest reorganisation would bring. But then, changes were nothing new to “WHAT WILL HE GROW TO?” people in the power supply business and neither were crises.
It all stemmed from the way the industry had developed since the days of the first power stations, a motley collection of generating plant clanking away in sheds and basements, providing lighting supplies to homes and businesses nearby. Since then, like Topsy, it had “just growed.” By 1920, London alone had no fewer than 50 different systems of electricity supply with 24 different voltages and 10 different frequencies. Moving home could mean having to change all the electrical appliances: but that wasn’t all. As one power station engineer said: “At Deptford we were supplying London with 10,000 volt lighting supplies at 83’/3 cycles; then there was direct current at 460 and 230 volts for local industrial power and lighting, a three-phase 6,600 volt 25 cycle system for large power consumers and traction, plus a single-phase 6,600 volt 25 cycle system feeding the Brighton railway. We always said we could have paralleled up with the Gas Works if necessary!” Deptford was one of the few “large” stations of that time (some 160MW), but most had a generating capacity of less than 5MW. Not only that. Very few stations were inter-connected, which meant that most needed to install their own reserve plant to cover breakdown and maintenance. This plus the high running costs made electricity expensive for industry and a luxury that most people couldn’t afford in their homes.
The breakthrough came in December, 1926, when the Central Electricity Board was set up. Their job was to build a “gridiron” of high voltage transmission lines to link the most efficient stations, with the aim of providing abundant and cheaper supplies. There had been intense opposition both in Parliament and from electricity undertakings. As one power company chairman exclaimed: “The salvation of the industry is not to be brought about either by the waving of weird gridirons or the multiplication of authorities.” But the scheme worked.
The 140 “selected stations” stayed in the ownership of the power companies and municipalities, but CEB engineers controlled generation using the most efficient plant to achieve the lowest production costs. That wasn’t all. Because the inter-connected stations could “pool reserve plant” there were even bigger savings. The average cost of electricity was halved. One company was offering domestic
lighting supplies on a’ sliding scale from today’s equivalent of 3p to 2p a unit, and power for cooking or domestic chores at half that — and the result was a new “electric revolution.” For the first time ordinary people could afford electricity. Showrooms were hiring out cookers at six shillings (3 Op)
a quarter. Industry was reaping equal benefits — thanks to the way more use could be made of stations with the best plant.
Weakened by war and with coal in short supply, the power system was ill-prepared for the big freeze of 1946/1947. Temperatures were below zero for long periods and even in central London they fell to as low as minus 15 degrees Centigrade. There were power cuts across the country. In February, with snow deep on the ground, members of the Central Electricity Board wearing overcoats and mufflers were photographed meeting by candlelight at the Board’s London headquarters.
Running the early grid had its problems. Control engineers were having to develop skills in forecasting likely demand in their area — learning the different effects of wet or dry washdays And the peaks that could occur if Gracie Fields was singing on the wireless.
“Perhaps the biggest instance was when Tommy Farr fought Joe Louis for the world heavyweight boxing title in 1937. The fight was being broadcast at 4.0am our time with listeners having lights on, electric fires glowing and coffee percolators at full blast. We’d kept extra power stations on load and it was just as well. The normally low night load shot up by 400MW that night — a quite incredible increase/or those years.”
Another breakthrough came in 1938. Until then the grid had been operated in seven virtually independent systems. Having too many stations connected in one big network had been thought too risky, but when it was seen that the South of the country hadn’t got enough generating plant to meet likely needs, while the North had capacity to spare, the experiment was tried — just for that winter.
All went well. And in the spring of 1939 it was decided to keep the grid as one integrated system — the largest in the world. It was a timely decision. When the war came the unified grid proved a lifeline feeding electricity supplies from blacked-out London to war-effort factories in the South West and Midlands. And when the blitz hit power stations, alternative supplies could be brought in from other pans of the country. But keeping supplies flowing was more difficult. Power station staff were struggling to keep plant in service despite lack of proper maintenance. Coal supplies were short and of poor quality. As one engineer said: “When incendiary bombs dropped on the coal dumps, they just fizzled out.” Things were no better post-war. In spite of urgent warnings, the Government limited station coal stocks to a dangerously low level — and then disaster struck. Because of unprecedented severe gales in late 1946 and the following Big Freeze, coal supplies could no longer get through. For three months homes and all but essential industries were ordered to “switch off” during mornings and afternoons. Only the existence of the grid stopped the country being brought to its knees— and even so the effects were severe.
Then in August came the Electricity Act, 1947. The electricity supply industry with its 540 undertakings was to be nationalised — and the new British Electricity Authority would be left to pick up a major part of the problems. Trying to meet the increasing and urgent demand for electricity with
insufficient plant and, as the “Central Authority,” to exercise a general control of policy for the whole industry, including the 14 Area Boards. It was no small job.
Control in “The Hole”
The National Grid proved its value during the blitz bringing power supplies from Scotland and South Wales to London and other major cities when they were bombed. Several London stations, notably Fulham and Battersea, were badly damaged. The grid system itself was not immune. Bombs and other enemy action were the cause of more than 300 transmission faults during the war but barrage balloons — used as a defence against low-flying aircraft — were even more of a problem, causing more than 1,600 faults in the same period. They would break free, dragging their steel mooring cables across power lines. National Control, the nerve centre of the power system, was moved to a safer home when Bankside, just south of the Thames in London, was hit by bombs. It had to stay in London because of the existing communications network. Its new home was in the disused Post Office Tube station near St Paul’s Cathedral. Nicknamed “The Hole” — it was at the bottom of the station’s two shafts — it became something of a legend to later generations of control engineers.
Miracles take a little longer
The reorganised industry came into being on April 1, 1948 — and the new British Electricity Authority could have taken as their motto: “The impossible we do today — miracles take a little longer!” The situation was critical. Government restrictions and shortage of supplies meant that only a third of the new plant planned towards the end of the war had been commissioned. The BEA had inherited nearly 300 power stations, but a lot of the plant was over 25 years old with many sets generating less than 8MW. Even in summer there was a plant shortage because of the need for essential maintenance and overhaul, while a severe winter that year would have left the industry 1,650MW short. The future looked equally bleak. As the Authority told the Minister of Fuel and Power in their first annual report. “By Vesting Date it was clear that the situation, far from improving, was likely to deteriorate further.” In the first year’s operation there was only one crumb of comfort. Massive efforts by power station staff to keep the maximum amount of plant in operation plus the best possible use of the grid had halved the number of power cuts — to 79 occasions!
The newly-formed British Electricity Authority and British European Airways shared the same initials. It provided a temptation for opponents of nationalisation who were quick to ask: “Which carries the more passengers?” In 1954 the British Electricity Authority became the Central Electricity Authority.
The first priority was to get new plant into commission as quickly as possible. The size of generating units was limited by ministerial order to 30MW and 60MW sets, even though Battersea had installed a 105MW unit back in the 1930s. What mattered then was to have sets of proven reliability, and the strategy paid off — but there was another problem. It was no use providing plant without the means of delivering the power supplies. The original grid had served the country well, but to meet the future needs the carrying capacity would have to be doubled. Rather than festoon the country like a spider’s web with more 132kV lines, the BEA decided to build a super grid network of 275kV lines, each able to carry six times the power. Not only that. The lines were to be capable of modification to operate at 400kV. All in all it was a formidable engineering programme, but that was only part of the problem facing the new authority. They had to create an organisation that would work effectively. The men at the top couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds. The Chairman, Lord Citrine, had been General Secretary of the TUC. His deputies were John (later Sir John) Hacking, Chief Engineer of the CEB who now took over operations, and Sir Henry Self, from the Civil Service who headed the administrative side. The headquarters staff were spread between a number of premises. At first the main administrative HQ was at Generation House — a rabbit-warren of a place in Great Portland Street, with others in Winsley Street (above the Waring and Gillows store) and in Trafalgar Buildings. They had plenty on their hands, having to cope with their own functions and at the same time devise ground rules for the future. Meanwhile the day-to-day job of running the industry was carried out in the 14 operational Divisions which had been set up.
The Divisional Controllers of those days — senior people from the private power companies and municipal undertakings — were pretty well autonomous. It was probably as well, because their job was anything but easy, especially at first. As one newcomer to the industry in 1948 recalls: “Our Divisional Headquarters was a Victorian terraced house with a total staff of only 50 people, dealing with the operation of 23 stations (including a couple of hydro’s and one station with diesels from a captured U-Boat); maintaining and operating the grid; planning for and supervising the construction of new stations and the super grid, including the way leaving; as well as coping with the purchasing, administrative, personnel and accountancy functions.
White House, Cockfosters
In the early days of nationalisation many of the headquarters of the new Divisions were installed in what had once been private homes. They were on a domestic scale, very different to the regional headquarters that the CEGB was later to build. The contrast can be seen by comparing the White House (left) at Cockfosters with Beckwith Knowle (below left), headquarters of the later North East Region at Harrogate, Yorkshire, and
(below right), the Board’s London headquarters near St Paul’s Cathedral.
That was only part of the job. Those Controllers had to weld together staff from jealously independent power companies and municipal undertakings plus the CEB, all with their different practices. Old loyalties and rivalries weren’t easy to eradicate. One manager was heard to remark: “You’ll get nowhere in this industry unless you have CEGB tattooed on your backside”.
But there were ways of promoting good working relationships, “Every Christmas we would have a social at a local hotel with a slap-up dinner, followed by each Department giving a turn. I remember a generously-built future Secretary of the CEGB dressed in ballet skirt and rugger socks doing a remarkable threesome with the equally hefty Cashier and Purchasing Officer. But the highlight was always the can-can by the girls of the typing pool, especially when the paper skirts didn’t last the course!”
The effect of nationalisation was felt right down the line. A past power station manager recalls how at first there was a great deal of trepidation. “We had always felt that our company was superior to any of the others, but the giants whose coat tails we had been grabbing were disappearing to better jobs. The chaps on the floor were afraid all their earlier bonus payments would be disappearing too. But we soon found there were advantages, and not just because there were jobs up for grabs. We had always been run on a very tight budget, but now there seemed to be plenty of money for spare plant or anything else we thought we needed. The stores had never grown so fast!” By the mid-1950s the new industry had got well into its stride. Good progress was being made towards the targets the BEA had set. Although demand was rising rapidly, power cuts were a thing of the past. A massive amount of new plant had been built, 8,000Mw, a two-thirds increase. The first 40-mile section of 275kV super grid was already in operation, with another 1,500 miles of 132kV and 275kV line under construction. There was some concern about the adequacy of future coal supplies, but against that the prospects of economic oil-firing were looking more promising. What’s more, there was the promise of nuclear power to come, heralded by the press as a guarantee of a cheap energy future. The BEA’s pre dictions on that score were more cautious, but with a diversity of fuels becoming available the outlook was good. It could have seemed an obvious case for leaving well alone as far as the organisation of the industry was concerned. But it didn’t work that way.
In quick succession there were two major changes. A new South of Scot land Electricity Board was set up with responsibility for both generation and distribution in that area. The BEA was renamed the Central Electricity Authority — and as an experiment in streamlining its own organisation, the North Western Division was merged with the Merseyside and North Wales Division. It showed the shape of things to come. But a much bigger shake-up was in the offing. The Scottish change had been a political decision, but the sniping hadn’t stopped there. In 1954 the Herbert Committee had been set up “to enquire into the organisation and efficiency” of the whole industry in England and Wales. Relationships between the BEA and the Area Boards hadn’t always been happy. Now many of those Boards seized the chance to criticise what they saw as over-centralisation and the way the BEA had exercised responsibility as the policy making Central Authority. The result came in 1958. A separate electricity Council was formed to coordinate policy for the industry as a whole. The Central Electricity Authority disappeared and in its place was a new Central Electricity Generating Board, still the industry’s “manufacturer and wholesaler” with the task of achieving the most economic generation possible and delivering power supplies in bulk to the Area Boards for distribution to consumers.
It was a job that would give the CEGB and its staff more than enough to think about for the next 30 years. Evolution – Not Revolution IF CHANGE was needed, the creation of the CEGB in April, 1958, couldn’t have come at a better time. The new Board, led by Sir Christopher Hinton, could see the opportunities that lay ahead, but major rethinking was needed to make the most of them.
The earlier post-war construction had given way to stations with 120MW sets, and that was only the beginning. When F H S (Stanley) Brown had taken over as generation design engineer in 1953, one of his first proposals was for a 200MW set for High Marnham — bigger than any- thing in Europe and with higher steam conditions than similar plant in the United States. Now there were plans for 300MW sets with even higher thermal efficiencies, giving more electricity from the same amount of fuel and pushing the frontiers of technology still further.
The pace of advance was escalating — alarmingly, some thought. (Within, three years orders were placed for eight 500MW sets before any experience had been gained with those of lower capacity.) It was an ambitious programme, but fresh thought was needed about the right sort of organisation to carry it through.
Those weren’t the only problems. Half the new 275kV super grid was already in operation, with construction of the remaining 900 miles of line well under way. But even when complete it wouldn’t be capable of carrying the power supplies of the future. The need had been foreseen. The new lines were capable of being modified to operate at higher voltages, but there still wouldn’t be enough. New 400kV lines would be required, routed to serve the new “superstations” being planned.
The prospects were exciting. There was no doubt that the staff could meet the challenge. The first priority was to make sure they were organised in the best way to do it.
The original Divisions had done a good job — an understatement when looking back at the job they faced in 1948. They had been the right management size for what needed doing then, but the nature of the job had changed. Gil Blackman, later Chairman of the CEGB, recalls:
“Britain was extremely prosperous. As a country we’d never had it so good. Electricity demand was doubling every 10 years, and with the programme ahead we couldn’t continue with the industry as it was. The Divisions not only operated the power stations in their areas. They built them, purchased the coal for them — did everything. But with the enormous amount of power station building, the CEGB centralised construction in three Project Groups: and soon the 12 Divisions were merged into five Regions which could do the job more effectively.” The change into Regions didn’t happen overnight — and for the staff concerned it was a period of great un-certainty. One of them remembers it well.
“At first Divisions still operated in much the same way except they were grouped under five Regional Directors with a very small staff. But it was the thin end of the wedge. Gradually more and more functions were being drawn into Regional Headquarters and by the early sixties the new organisation was taking shape. Divisional Controllers became Assistant Regional Directors, even if parts of their old organizations’ continued in much the same way for years to come.”
Creating the Regions had its difficulties, but the problems didn’t stop there. The 12 Divisions had each had their own way of running things. Now those different practices had to be standardised. One frustrated manager pinned a quote on his wall:
“We trained hard, but as soon as we were being formed into teams we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we meet each new situation by reorganisation: and a wonderful method it is for creating the illusion of progress while achieving nothing but chaos, inefficiency and demoralisation.”
It had been written nearly 2,000 years before — by Gaius Petronius Arbiter, a friend of Nero’s!
Berkeley Nuclear Power Station
The CEGB’s first nuclear power stations were Berkeley and Bradwell. Berkeley (left), on the eastern bank of the Severn Estuary was officially opened in April, 1963, by the Duke of Edinburgh — at the same moment as a similar ceremony was performed at Bradwell in Essex.
Staff felt much the same, and the new Board recognised this. One of its members was Andrew Cooper who realised the importance of the personnel function, especially now that Labour Relations had become a responsibility of the Electricity Council. A separate Personnel Department was formed under his aegis as Member for Operations and Personnel, and he didn’t hesitate to make his views known — to the Board and staff.
For a short time he was also the South Eastern Regional Director, and in the first edition of the regional magazine he wrote:
“In the new organisation we shall certainly achieve the targets we have set ourselves: but we have learned enough from past experience to know that this can be done by controlled evolution far better than it can be by painful revolution.”
The evolution continued. In 1961 a Transmission Construction Project Group was formed to deal with an- other of the urgent priorities — building the 400kV super grid. Still further changes would come later, but in the meantime the Board had other things to think about.
Prospects were changing rapidly. So were the means of generation. In the early 1950s it was taken for granted that coal would be the main power station fuel — until the forecasts of increased requirements had both the NCB and Government Ministers worried. Suddenly it seemed that coal shortages would continue for at least another 10 years.
A start was made on converting some stations to oil firing (or dual oil and coal) even though at the time it was uneconomic. But soon oil prices fell and more dual-fired stations were planned to help meet demand in the 1960s. Economically it was right, but it brought its own problems to station staff who had to operate the plant.
Unless combustion in the boilers was controlled carefully, acid smuts were formed which did no good to cars parked nearby or surrounding crops. Even ladies’ tights suffered. But things weren’t always as they seemed. A station chemist told one story:
“I had to visit a chap who had been painting some kitchen chairs in his garden. He was furious, pointing at the tiny black blobs ruining his new paintwork, and it didn’t help when I suddenly burst out laughing. Then I handed him my magnifying glass and said
‘Look for yourself. It’s the firs time I’ve seen acid smuts wriggling their legs in the air!’ For once we weren’t to blame. But those smuts stayed a problem until we got things under tighter control.”
Although in the mid-fifties oil had been seen as an important new fuel for power stations, another prospect was opening up Nuclear power. The atomic Energy Authority’s prototype station at Calder Hall was nearing completion, but although it would feed electricity into the grid its main purpose was to provide plutonium for military purposes. The Government could see the benefits of having a civil nuclear power programme — not least to provide an alternative energy source — and to the AEA’s disappointment they gave the BEA the job of building and running the proposed stations. The BEA had welcomed that decision, but they (and later the CEA) had major doubts about the Government’s proposals that a quarter of all new power station capacity from the early 960s should be nuclear. It was no accident that the Government appointed Christopher Hinton, who built Calder Hall, to be Chairman f the new CEGB. He was expected to champion the nuclear cause. But to the amazement of senior engineers from the old CEA (and to the fury of people in the Ministries) he led the fight to whittle down the Government programme to a more prudent size. It took two years before he got it down far enough, but in the meantime work was going ahead in building the rest of the nuclear magnox stations.
Bradwell Nuclear Power Station
Bradwell nuclear power station was built on the south east extremity of the Blackwater estuary in Essex. The site was originally a marsh, below the high tide level, so all land in the vicinity of the main buildings had to be raised. And as Power News reported in 1962:
Piloting his own helicopter, Prince Philip flew in to Berkeley, Gloucestershire, to open one of Britain’s first two commercial nuclear power stations. At the second nuclear power station. at Bradwell… the Lord Lieutenant of Essex performed a similar ceremony simultaneously on Prince Philip’s behalf. Welcoming the achievement of nuclear power, Prince Philip said there had been many problems. “But nothing can alter the fact that these two stations represent a triumph of research and engineering … It is plain that nuclear power is going to play an increasingly important part in the British energy programme of the future.” At last the CEGB had a three-fuel economy — coal, oil and nuclear —with all the advantages that brought the magnox stations with their low running costs were always “base load plant” running 24 hours a day, while for the next 10 years system control engineers could use the variations in coal and oil prices to help achieve other generation by the cheapest means: and events after that showed how wise it was for the CEGB not to have all its eggs in one basket. But in the winter of 1962 that was the last thing those engineers had in mind. A more immediate situation demanded all their energies. Prince’s sticky situation
The best-laid plans… When Berkeley nuclear power station was opened the road leading to the station was resurfaced, to give the car taking Prince Philip from his helicopter to the station a smooth run. But, as a CEGB driver recalls, things did not go too smoothly: the opening took place on a really hot day and they had to be careful not to drive too slowly on the sticky tarmac. “Actually I think the tyres on his car had to be changed afterwards” Crisis amid the winter snows
NO ONE involved “at the sharp end”, transmission engineers, linesmen, station staff or grid control engineers — is likely to forget the start of 1963. The New Year came in with gales and a blizzard… heavy, driving snow with temperatures plummeting to minus 15 degrees C even in the daytime. Grid lines sagged and broke under the weight of ice, with line gangs staggering through snowdrifts to make repairs.
As Andrew Cooper, Board Member for Operations and Personnel wrote in a special article in Power News: “There is a story behind the events which is worth telling, so that we in the industry may be made aware of the devotion which inspired men to per-form feats of almost superhuman en-durance to keep supplies going under Arctic conditions.” To quote just one example:
Part of Birmingham lost supplies because insulators on three towers were covered with ice, and so were the 150-foot towers. Working through the night in sub-zero conditions the men managed to climb the towers, but discovered that the ice couldn’t be chipped off without damaging the insulators. Eventually the ice was dissolved using airplane de-icing fluid; but each insulator had to be dried by hand before the line could be put back into service. Stations had their own problems
Coal stocks were frozen to a depth of two feet. Fires were lit under coal trucks so they could be emptied. Frozen jetties were a hazard for staff un- loading colliers. Even so they managed to generate the supplies needed until January 24 when — for the only time that winter — there wasn’t enough plant to meet the demand. For periods of 10 minutes to an hour there were widespread disconnections. But worse was to come. The next night the grid faced the worst disruption in its history.
Heavy fogs in December had polluted insulators and substation equipment with industrial dirt. A slight thaw during the day was followed by a quick freeze — and the trouble started. That night there were 700 flashovers on lines and electrical equipment. Grid control engineers could see the possibility of the grid being split, with some areas not having sufficient generation to meet the load. Phone calls warned stations to restart plant that had been shut down for the night.
But as the morning demand grew and flashing lights on wall circuit diagrams showed that switches had “tripped out” the emergency procedures were implemented. Instructions were given to “shed load”… stage by more severe stage so as to safeguard the grid from total collapse. The situation was becoming critical — though they still didn’t know just how critical it would get.
Many stations were isolated from the grid. As the morning demand grew, widespread disconnections were inevitable — in some areas up to a fifth of normal consumption. The worst hit part was the south of the country which had been relying on the grid lines from the Midlands, but one by one these failed. Stations which had become disconnected were trying t( get supplies flowing again, sometime; by highly unorthodox means. A West Thurrock engineer remembers: “We’d had to shut down completely when we got isolated from the grid. So there we were, huddled round a paraffin heater in the Charge Engineer’s office, trying to puzzle out some way to get rid of the ice on the station bus- bars (heavy metal conductors) because until that was done there was no way to restart the plant.
It only takes a spell of bad weather to remind everyone that it can be a tough job at the sharp end of power generation. The winter of 1962/63 was one to remember. It was marked by Arctic conditions with gales and blizzards, with temperatures plummeting to minus 15 degrees Centigrade in daytime. At power stations it was cold enough to freeze the curtain of water at the foot of cooling towers, restricting air flow — leaving staff the job of smashing a way through the wall of ice. Thick layers of ice had to be patiently chipped away when external valves needed adjusting. Coal stocks were frozen to a depth of two feet. Coal wagons froze, making them difficult if not impossible to unload. Frozen jetties were a hazard for staff unloading colliers. For some staff in the transmission districts the conditions were even tougher. Frozen insulators had to be cleared by hand and that meant climbing ice-coated transmission towers. Teams called out to damaged lines in exposed areas like the Pennines faced snow driven by gale force winds in their efforts to keep the power flowing.
Even putting braziers under the bus bars hadn’t worked, and every time we tried to bring in supplies from another station the circuits just tripped out again. Eventually we managed it by defeating the automatic electrical protection systems and feeding in supplies, so that the permanent short circuit would generate enough heat to melt the ice.”
Before the night was out, the grid was being operated in four separate groups. Crisis point came at 9.0 am when engineers in the National Control room gave the instruction “Shed Stage 6 — and quick.” This was the most desperate step ever taken to safe-guard the system. The message was transmitted to three separate parts of the country and passed on to Area Board engineers who in turn opened switches to disconnect sufficient sup-plies to avoid potential disaster — all within the space of 60 seconds.
Just a few hours later, the grid was operating again as a single system and supplies had been largely restored. It says a lot for those who had designed the grid to withstand almost anything — and just as much for the staff in grid control, transmission districts and power stations who saved a crisis from becoming a catastrophe. The Pattern for development
THAT winter of 1962 had been another landmark in the rapid developments taking place. The first 275MW set had come into service at Blyth, and this was followed the next year by two 550MW units at Thorpe Marsh — Europe’s largest at that time.
Those early sixties also saw the start of an even more significant range — one that would alter the whole pattern of generation in this country.
Since the early days of electricity, stations had been built where the demand was highest — in the major industrial areas, cities and the like. London still had more than 30, from “cathedrals of power” like Battersea to tiny stations like Poplar with an out-put of only 11MW. That was about to change dramatically.
With stations of 2,OOOMW being proposed, Donald dark and his team of planners had to decide where to site them. As one explained:
“We knew those stations would bum something like 20,000 tons of coal a day, and that if-we could build them nearer to coalfields we could slash fuel transport costs: but in the past it had always been cheaper to take coal to the stations than build grid extensions to get the power away. Now it was different. Because the new super-grid lines could carry much more power it became cheaper to transport electricity — ‘coal by wire.’
Big power stations are big users of coal. A 2,000 megawatt power station can burn six million tonnes or more of coal a year. Transport was recognised as a major problem and the solution was the merry-go-round system with trains shuttling between pit and power station. This train at Radcliffe power station, near Nottingham, has just dropped its 1,000 tonnes of coal into ground hoppers as it moved slowly through the unloading house before returning to the colliery.
So the new stations were built close to coalfields with merry-go round trains supplying them non stop. In the same way oil-fired stations were built on estuaries close to refineries.”
As Sam Goddard (the System Planning Director) has said: “It set the pat-tern for tremendous developments through the sixties and seventies. You can see the stations along the Ayr and Trent valleys almost like a string of pearls, and it led to power movements of a size that had never previously been envisaged.”
The first of the 2,OOOMW stations to come into service was at Ferrybridge in Yorkshire, followed by West Burton in the Midlands. But then came the start of troubles that would bedevil new plant for years to come. The No. 1 unit at West Burton was still being commissioned when severe damage occurred. It was caused by design problems, but the inquiry report showed vividly the sort of pressures under which staff commissioning plant were operating.
Here’s a brief summary of what happened:
“The rotor had already needed to be replaced because experimental turbine blades were shed during earlier operation. Then, just when the set was due to be brought back into service, the manufacturers requested further modifications.
The restart was put back for another 24 hours; but then vibration during the run-up caused a further delay until the fault was found and rectified. Staff, who had been working flat out since the day before, decided to stand by to complete the final tests that Sunday night.”
As the report commented: “Inevitably the atmosphere was fraught with a sense of urgency and barely sup-pressed frustration as each successive incident caused further delay.” Then when at last the run-up started and the stop-valve failed, it was decided to re-place it with the machine in operation. By midnight other faulty conditions were being observed, and the staff were still trying to correct these when an hour later “sudden and violent vibrations occurred” and the machine was shut down.
The damage was extensive, including bent rotors. The inquiry revealed several “design shortcomings,” but those weren’t the only weaknesses.
Gil Blackman (then a Midlands Assistant Regional Director) recalls: “At that time we were flying blind on our major units. There had been no chance to develop sound operating instructions and without adequate instrumentation we couldn’t know what was happening in the unit.” He went on to say how Regional Scientific Ser-vices Departments worked with De-sign and Construction staff on improvements needed feeding the results back to the manufacturers.
“When you see those same turbines nowadays they are smothered in instrumentation which wasn’t there when we first ran the plant. In the same way, we looked for quality assurance on things like boiler welds and made sure the right materials were used. A lot of work was done in the Marchwood and Leatherhead laboratories. There were enormous problems in getting things right.
Almost all the alternators had to go back to the manufacturer’s works. We would take the rotor out of one machine, repair it and then put it back somewhere else to keep the maximum amount of plant in service.” The enormous changes that 40 years of development brought to the electricity supply industry are graphically illustrated by these two turbines.On the left, a steam turbine on its way to Barton power station, Manchester, in the 1930s.Steam TurbineOn the right, pictured at the manufacturers in 1973, a steam turbine intended for Drax power station in Yorkshire.
Economies of scale drove the CEGB first to 500 megawatt and then the 660 megawatt turbines. Big turbine use relatively less material, making them cheaper to build and house, as the graphic illustrates. They also proved very much more efficient — once the technical problems were solved. The Drax turbine in the picture spins at 50 revolutions a second. The high pressure end, the section at the bottom of the picture, takes steam at a pressure of 2,300Ib a square inch and a temperature of 565 degrees Centigrade — heating the high-pressure turbine a cherry red colour when it is running.
Getting the plant right took another 10 years and a lot of effort all round. But as Gil Blackman added: “With that knowledge and experience in our locker, we now have some of the best plant operating anywhere in the world.”
Even in those latter 1960s the picture was anything but doom and gloom. The CEGB’s policy of siting big coal-fired and oil-fired station close to their fuel sources was being proved right. Generating costs were being cut still further. And by the there had been developments in the nuclear fields.
The earlier magnox stations were still performing well. With their reliability and low running costs they were being called the workhorses of their regions. Taking their high capita costs into account, they weren’t a economic as other new plant. On that score they had been regarded as proto types, built and operated to gain experience. The Board was looking to the next generation of plant to provide the economic breakthrough.
They had looked at the various types of reactor systems available in the early sixties. Given a free choice, it’s doubtful if they would have selected the Advanced Gas Reactor design which had been developed by the Atomic Energy Authority. Christopher Hinton had openly expressed his doubts about it — and got his knuckles rapped by the Minister over his outspokenness. But in the end it was that AGR system which became the basis of the next nuclear programme.
The more advanced design would enable larger and more efficient 660MW sets to be installed, so when work on Dungeness B started in 1966 expectations were high. The troubles that would bedevil construction of the reactor were still something for the future.
Another major development was taking place at the same time. Already some sections of the 275kV super grid had been modified for operation at 400kV, but in 1965 the first 150-mile length of new 400kV line had been completed. It was only the start of a major network, and before that could be completed way leave permissions would have to be obtained for the miles of line across the countryside. It would be a major task. But then, environmental problems were nothing new!
This green and pleasant land
FROM early days the industry had 1 recognised that the environment (mattered. It showed in the care the CEB took over the design of the original grid transmission towers. On nationalisation, the BEA had ‘ decided that the architectural de-sign of new stations would be submitted to the Royal Fine Art Com-mission. But when the CEGB was created, it was put under a statutory duty to “preserve amenity” and Hinton was under no illusion concerning the way people felt about lines — or stations.
“It is no use talking about knights in shining armour striding across the countryside. Knights in shining armour are a damned nuisance in the wrong place. The same is true of power stations, however well designed.”
He made full use of Lord Holford, an eminent architect who had been appointed a Part-Time Member. As a later Chairman said: “He encouraged and developed an appreciation among Board staff of the importance of looking at all our projects, power stations, transmission lines and substations, with the eye of an artist.”
The “Holford Rules” were drawn up for the guidance of wayleave officers who had to route the new 400 kV lines. Their job had never been easy. They’d always had to get permissions (wayleaves) for lines to cross every bit of property along the route, and they knew the problems of choosing routes that would have the least effect on the countryside or built-up areas.
But since 1947, planning permission was needed as well, with district and county planning officers often having very different views about where the line should go. As one wayleave officer said when he was discussing a line route near Hadrian’s Wall: “It’s a good job Hadrian wasn’t around now … he’d never had got planning permission for all that lot!”
Modern power stations are among the biggest things created by man so they can never be completely hidden. But their outlines can be softened by judicious planting (Left). Nature trails (Below Right) and reserves have also been established at many stations.
There was one inevitable question: “Why can’t the line be put underground?” This was considered whenever lines were being routed through sensitive areas like beauty spots. What ruled it out other than in exceptional cases was the heavy extra expense.
Just one kilometre of heavy-duty 400 kV line could cost several millions of pounds, 20 times as much as putting it overhead. But trying to convince planning officers or local people that they hadn’t got a special case was just one more headache for the wayleave officers.
The same care has been given to planning power stations and substations. They couldn’t be hidden, but a lot could be done to soften the outlines by tree-planting and using artificial mounds as well as by making the best use of the surrounding features. Even more positive steps include nature trails and schemes to improve the breeding grounds for local wildlife – “creative conservation. Since 1959 the CEGB has won more than 40 awards for its care of the environment.
Enter new men with new ideas. Power Station in a mountain
Imagine excavating a cavern big enough to take St Paul’s Cathedral, linked to the surface by tunnels you could drive a bus down. That is the measure of Dinorwig, the “CEGB’s” power station in a mountain” that lies hidden beneath the beauty of Snowdonia. Dinorwig is a pumped storage station. At night when generating costs are low, it takes electricity from the grid to pump water from its lower lake, Llyn Peris, to Marchlyn Mawr, its upper reservoir. During the day the water can flow back, providing power for the grid. The station is the National Grid’s pacemaker, helping to ensure that the electricity supply is both regular and steady. Almost every aspect of its construction deserves a place in the record books. The scheme was the largest of its type in Europe. At £425 million it was the largest civil engineering contract ever announced in the UK. In all some two million cubic metres of concrete was poured — enough to fill Wembley Stadium to a depth of 100 feet.
Built inside the mountain
Why was it built inside the mountain?
To minimise the impact of the station on one of Britain’s most beautiful areas.
AS the CEGB went into the 1970s, the future looked bright. Demand was still growing steadily. More 2,OOOMW stations were coming into service and so were gas turbine stations using aero-type engines which could be brought into operation very speedily to help cope with daily peaks and unexpected surges in demand. Some 1,300 miles of400kV line had already been built. Within the next few years much of the 1,500 miles of 275kV supergrid would be modified for operation at 400kV.
The pace of advance had been remarkable, but the rapid plant expansion was bringing its own problems. Methods of working which had been adequate in 1948 no longer met the new needs. As Gil Blackman explains:
“Station maintenance staff were doing a good job. But it seemed silly to me that often they were sitting on their hands from Monday to Friday when the plant was running, then having to come in at weekends to carry out the maintenance work … in effect condemned to a seven-day week. There were similar problems on the transmission side. The answer was to bring in work-stagger arrangements together with an incentives scheme which would give them a third extra pay and a reduction of overtime to as near zero as we could make it.
The idea was sound. It enabled the CEGB to take on the massive amount of new plant without a massive increase in numbers. Manpower productivity shot up. But the job of implementing the scheme at each location and selling it to the workforce was yet one more headache for managers.
The job of running the newer stations was getting more and more demanding. And often station managers were finding they hadn’t enough hours in the day or adequate resources to cope with that while also giving enough attention to technical problems.
Overhead Line Working
Overhead line working is no job for the fainthearted as the photograph below demonstrates. Picture: Balfour Beatty
The nature of the job had developed since the CEGB was set up, but the organisation hadn’t changed with it. That came in the early seventies. Stations had always been able to call on Regional Scientific Services Departments where corrosion and similar problems were beyond the scope of station staff. Investigations leading to improved methods of operation had reduced failures of boiler tubes and other plant. Welds had caused problems, and non-destructive techniques were developed for testing them. Now Regional Engineering Departments were formed to help stations cope with problems of an engineering nature, and to provide teams to assist in the commissioning of new plant.
There were other changes. Trans-mission Sections were merged into larger Districts, while generation and transmission were brought together under a Director of Production. Soon other functions such as co-ordination of station and transmission overhauls and various management services like computing come together in a Re-source Planning Department.
Construction of the 2000MW link between Britain and France involved robot machines with more than a touch of science fiction about them. Each country was responsible for installing two of the four pairs of cables in what was nicknamed “Le Link” by Power News. To protect them from damage, the cables had to be buried in trenches beneath the seabed. To install their cables, the British developed two robot machines that would have looked at home in a science fiction magazine. The first was the trench cutter (above right), a 175-tonne underwater tractor which crawled along the seabed. It was controlled by an umbilical cord from a barge on the surface above. In some 12 weeks it twice cut its way along the seabed the 31 miles from Folkestone to Calais, removing more than 200,000 tonnes of chalk, rock, and clay and laying a steel guiding hawser in each trench.
The second robot CLEM (right) — the cable laying and embedding machine — used the hawsers as a guide when laying the power cables. This robot, too, was controlled by a mother ship on the surface.
New men with new ideas were taking over, and the effects were being felt all down the line, especially as more and more Directives and Procedures descended from Board Headquarters covering everything from changes in management concepts to new and detailed procedures like those governing contract and purchasing requirements.
Conferences were held to put the changes across, sometimes with unexpected contributions from the floor. One station manager showed a slide of the Director of Production upside down, then on its side (Both ways round) before standing him back on his feet and commenting: ‘That’s how all this has got us feeling. We can score the goals, but not if you keep moving the goalposts’. There were grins all round, but of course it didn’t make a blind bit of difference.
It was a good job that people in the industry could manage to keep a sense of humor. Although the seventies had started well, crises were ahead. First came the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1973 when electricity supplies to homes were cut on a rota basis and industry was forced into a shorter working week. Frank Ledger (later Board Member for Production) was then the System Operations Engineer, and he has vivid memories of that time:
“‘We lived life at an unreal pace, with hardly any time to sleep. Coal stocks were running down; but to make things worse, miners were picketing outside power station gates so other vital supplies weren’t getting through.
To cap it all, I remember coming back to a deserted and very cold Board headquarters late on New Year’s Eve, 1973, after the Chairman and I had been to see the Secretary of State for Energy. He had been asking us to advise him about replying to an MP’s letter claiming that we were only turning out the lights for political reasons, to put pressure on the miners! Of course, it was that 1973 strike which toppled the Heath Government. But what we learnt then helped us keep the lights on the next time.”
As he recalls, those weren’t the only emergencies that year. A dispute involving engineering staff affected out-put from all stations. Industrial action by ASLEF railway drivers and a sea-man’s strike hit coal deliveries. And to make matters worse, oil was in very short supply, with prices soaring because of the Middle East war.
The industrial relations problems were only temporary setbacks, but the oil-price increase had a major effect. New oil-burning stations were coming into service at a time when oil was being priced out for base load (24-hour a day) generation. But that wasn’t the only problem. The whole construction programme had been based on the expectation that electricity demand would continue to rise at the same pace. Instead it had slackened and for the first time the CEGB found it had far more plant than it needed. It was the start of another very difficult period, for managers and for many staff.
The CEGB could see just one way to turn the plant surplus situation to advantage. A lot of older uneconomic plant could be closed down. But that wouldn’t be possible without affecting a large number of station staff. Rod Lewin — later Head of Employee Relations was in the South Eastern Region and he remembers how it was the start of a massive industrial relations exercise:
“The Region’s staff surplus was getting on for six or seven thousand and we needed a whole new system to deal with that kind of situation. So we dealt with employees as individuals, interviewing everybody concerned to see what their needs and expectations were. Some were happy to be paid off, but others wanted to be retrained and relocated. Then we created a huge computer database so particular job vacancy notices could be sent to those who would be interested. We wanted to establish a personal touch so there would also be some pressure on the individual to take responsibility for his or her future. The system spread to other Regions and ended up being used over the next 1O years — with a lot of staff in new positions of their own choosing and no problems from the unions.”
On October 25, 1975, the Board was able to shut down 23 stations, with another 18 partial closures, in all some 3,OOO MW of plant. It made economic sense. But in the meantime the CEGB and consumers were getting other economic benefits in a way never envisaged by early planners. The train now standing
The train now standing
WHAT are nice trains like you doing in stations like these? That question could be prompted by both these photographs. The trains, or to be precise the diesel electric locos, are pictured running fast but standing still in a power station. They were an innovative temporary solution to a rare but often time-consuming technical fault on a generator-exciter failure. The exciter provides the current for a main generator’s field coils. Without the current there is no output from the generator. The idea was demonstrated at Willington power station in 1968 when the armature on one of B station’s 200MW units failed. While repairs were completed, the station hired a loco whose electric output was just what the generator wanted, the loco ran for 300 hours and the unit maintained full output. Other power stations tried the same solution when they faced an exciter problem.
Diesel Electric Loco
Ever since the thirties, engineers in grid control centres had been forecasting likely demand and selecting the most economic plant to meet requirements. In some ways the job had be-come easier. Computers in National Control could give up-to-the-minute information on the running costs of every generating unit in the country. But engineers still had to decide how much plant was needed to meet a demand that changes day by day and minute by minute. Insufficient plant would mean power cuts. Too much would waste fuel. Gas turbine stations had made a big difference. They weren’t cheap to run, but they could be brought into operation at the flick of a switch. Soon there would be another source of ready power. A pumped-storage station, the largest in Europe was under construction at Dinorwig in Snowdonia. This would be able to provide 1,300MW of power within 10 seconds and its full output (1,800MW) in less than two minutes. It would prove a major help in operating a system that was getting still more complex.
But the aim stayed the same — to give the cheapest supplies possible. If the South of Scotland Electricity Board had surplus generation available at the right price, supplies could be imported through the supergrid links. And Scotland wasn’t the only country from which the CEGB could buy supplies. There had been a link with France ever since 1961. It didn’t carry much current — just 160MW — and the cable was often damaged by ships’ anchors and trawls. Even so it proved it’s worth. Because peak demands in the two countries came at different times, both countries could get the benefit of cheaper generation “from across the Channel”.
With the benefit of that experience, a new 2,OOO MW link was planned in the 1970s, John Yates of the Transmission Division managed the project, and it was a major job. This time we were going to bury the cables in the sea bed, which meant carrying out the most detailed hydro graphic survey ever undertaken of that bit of the Channel. The machines developed for digging the trenches and laying the cables put Britain among world leaders in underwater technology. But now the link can delivery as much power to either country as one of Kent’s largest stations … enough to supply the needs of over half Kent.
Yet the whole project was only half the cost of a new power station, and even that was shared with the French. The eventual result hasn’t been quite the same. The availability of cheap French nuclear power has made the link something of a one-way system, but that hasn’t lessened its usefulness.
From “pea soup” to marine biology
“THERE’S a war on – we’ve no time for research now.” That was said by the CEGB’s Chief Engineer on the day war was declared in 1939. It was a natural reaction, but it doesn’t reflect the part that research has played in the industry since the 1930s.
One of the big problems at that time was the effect that “pea-soup fogs” had on insulators, causing flashovers. Dr J S Forrest, in charge of research, said later: “My staff never numbered more than five but, in spite of the limited resources, useful work was done. We found the best type of insulator to withstand foggy polluted atmosphere by a method that has stood the test of time and which has been adopted in many countries.”
That, plus techniques developed later for washing insulators on live lines and substation plant, was of vital importance in the 1950s. It was one of the major factors in deciding that a supergrid could be built and operated without hazarding the reliability of electricity supplies.
In the earlier days research was limited to the transmission field. This too developed, with investigations into the additional problems that the use of higher voltages would bring. But while the industry relied on manufacturers to develop plant design both in generation and transmission, Dr Forrest had already seen the need for a multi-discipline research laboratory capable of tackling much more – from boiler corrosion and the electrical science of machines to marine biology.
Some of that work was carried out in a collection of surplus US army huts at Teddington until a research laboratory was built at Leatherhead in 1950.
Probe in hand an acid-rain researcher works inside a climate-controlled “solar dome” greenhouse at the Central Electricity Research Laboratories at Leather-head.
But research requirements were growing rapidly, especially as the first nuclear programme was started. Leatherhead was extended and new laboratories were built at Marchwood and Berkeley. The range and extent of work was enormous. On the nuclear side alone, the Berkeley laboratories were dealing with a massive programme including work on corrosion inside reactors.
Simulators were developed to enable nuclear station staff to be trained in normal operation and dealing with emergencies. Other major work was being done at Marchwood to enable repair and inspection to be carried out inside reactors using robot equipment.
There were difficulties involving other plant, including those thrown up by the early 500MW sets. But there has been a lot of work in a very different and fascinating field.
Research was always the hidden side of the electricity supply industry. At peak the CEGB had up to 3,000 staff working on a bewildering variety of issues from nuclear physics to fish populations, reaction kinetics of burning coal to aerodynamics.
Since 1954 research staff have been involved in a very large environmental programme. Again the range of activities has varied greatly. One problem coal-fired stations faced was the disposal of pulverised fuel ash. Development work has enabled PFA to be used in building materials. Crops have been grown in areas filled with the ash. Marine and freshwater biology have played a considerable part, from preventing mussels fouling the pipes supplying coastal stations with cooling water to the culture of fish in the warm water outflows.
More recently acid rain has been featured in the press and on television. It has been blamed for the loss of freshwater fish in Scandinavia and Scotland, and damage to forests in other parts of Europe. It has been argued that air pollution is a major cause, especially chimney emissions of sulphur dioxide gases from power stations. The CEGB has questioned how far this is the case. [Plant in new stations is being designed to limit emissions which might be harmful. But the cost of modifying existing plant would be very high]. So it has been carrying out its own investigations and funding independent research to help establish the true causes.
From the small beginnings with only a handful of staff, research grew until at its peak almost 3,000 people were involved. It has been just another part of the work needed to ensure that supplies of electricity can be delivered reliably to the customer, without harming the environment. Keeping the lights burning
The late seventies brought fresh problems. As a worldwide depression hit this country the CEGB was faced with an unprecedented situation. The demand for electricity fell, and it was to stay below the 1978 level for an-other six years.
Ironically this was at a time when the problems with the 500MW sets were coming towards an end, and the effects were evident. The Midlands Region even started a “Ten Billion Club” for stations which generated 10,000 million units a year.
CEGB planners were confident that demand would pick up again and that new stations would still be needed, even if not for the time being. But not everyone shared that view. Environmental pressure groups were arguing that energy conservation could meet all future requirements, or alternatively that use should be made of “renewable resources” like wind power.
The Chairman, Glyn England, had visited the United States to see what was being done in that field. “I found that President Carter’s people heading the alternative energy project were being very heavily funded by British standards, and came back with the clear view that we ought to be doing more in terms of practical experiments. As a direct result, the first wind machine was built at Carmarthen Bay, and I put British manufacturers on notice that, if it was successful, we would be in the market for wind turbines”
The CEGB’s first wind turbine, in-stalled in 1982 at Carmarthen Bay, in South Wales, had an output of 200 kilowatts, enough for a small village. Later other, larger, machines were tested on the site. A much larger, one MW turbine, was commissioned at Richborough in Kent in 1989. Application was made for a wind park at Capel Cynon in Dyfed, Wales, with 25 wind turbines each with an output of 300 kilowatts. Two other sites with potential as wind parks were identified, in Cornwall and the North Pennines. But useful as alternative energy sources might prove, in the latter seventies it was believed that they wouldn’t be enough to meet a resumed growth in electricity demand and the need to replace older stations.
The energy crises of the 70s raised interest in renewable energy sources such as wind, waves and tides. Interest was heightened in the 80s with growing public concern over environmental matters.
By the turn of the century the first generation of nuclear (magnox) stations would be shutting down. The Board was convinced that proposals for future stations should include a sizeable proportion of nuclear plant.
Early experience with the AGR programme hadn’t been encouraging. Construction of the first AGR station at Dungeness ran into difficulties of the worst kind. Design problems meant that work started had to be re-done. That was made worse by contractual difficulties on site.
Although the station had been intended to come into service in 1970 it was nowhere near completion, in fact the first reactor wasn’t commissioned until 1985, 15 years late. Hinkley Point B had fared better and started operating in 1976, thanks to a concerted effort by designers, the CEGB’s nuclear specialists and station staff. The Hunterston B station in Scotland was also in service. But although those were given greater confidence in the AGR system, it was still too soon to judge its success. The CEGB needed an alternative.
Some years earlier, the Government had initiated a review of future possibilities and decided to adopt a programme with Steam Heavy Generating Water Reactors. The CEGB would have preferred the Pressurised Water Reactor system and Donald dark, by then a Board Member, resigned in protest. Later studies showed the Board’s view had been right. So when, in 1978, they put forward positive proposals, the Labour Government agreed there was a need to develop the option of adopting the PWR system in the early 1980s by ordering a first station.
The main headline in Power News caught the flavour of the Board’s response to the miners’ strike. The CEGB’s job was to keep the lights on, not to take sides in the dispute.
The Conservative Government which followed was even more committed to nuclear power. In 1982 they appointed Walter Marshall, then Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, as the new Chairman of the CEGB. But the Board knew they would have a hard fight on their hands before they got final approval to build Sizewell B.
The public’s attitude towards nuclear power was changing. In spite of the good safety record of the CEGB’s nuclear stations, fears about the possible risks had increased, especially after the 1979 PWR accident at Three Mile Island in the United States.
The Sizewell B public inquiry was the longest ever held. But in 1987 approval was obtained and construction work started. Already the Board had announced which sites were being considered for additional PWR stations, and within the next couple of years approval was sought to build another three.
But other energy sources hadn’t been ignored. In the late 1970s the CEGB had gone ahead with the second stage of Drax, making it the biggest coal-fired station in Western Europe. That was to be followed some 10 years later with proposals for another three large coal-fired stations, by which time other possibilities were opening up, such as making use of supplies of natural gas expected to be available for electricity generation.
But in the meanwhile, March, 1984, had brought a major threat to existing electricity supplies another miners’ strike. This time there was a major difference. The Board had large stocks of coal at power stations some 28 million tons, enough to last six months. But they still had to make a vital policy decision. Walter Marshall put it in a nutshell: “If we thought the strike was going to be a short one, then the thing to do was to burn the mountains of coal we had. But if it was going to be a very long one, then we should switch electricity production to oil immediately to preserve coal. We knew that would be a very expensive policy. In six weeks we would be in the red by hundreds of millions of pounds, and it could soon mount up to a billion. In the end the overwhelming thing that mattered was to keep the lights on, and the decision was made to bum oil.
In fact the strike lasted 12 months. Fortunately, the Nottinghamshire miners had stayed at work and some coal supplies were coming through. But as the Chairman added: “It was only absolute determination through-out the entire organisation that enabled us to keep going by the most remarkable means.
Silhouetted against the night sky even an ash conveyor can acquire a certain beauty … as this plant at Drax demonstrates.
System Operations used computer simulations to guide the operation of plant and get every last ounce of benefit from the fuel supplies available. Oil supplies were purchased on a vast scale in a way intended to minimise the visibility of the operation from price escalation and other factors. It entailed bringing oil in from different parts of the world by ships of many nationalities so as not to risk price rises if the extent of purchases became known.
In the Midlands Region, coal and oil were transported by road in a bigger operation than had ever been attempted – 500,000 tons of coal and 25,000 lorry movements a week, despite road – routing problems and the need to maintain good relations with communities affected. The Regions changed from coal to oil burning on an unprecedented scale, with plant not yet fully commissioned being run at high loads. All in all, it involved the most highly coordinated management exercise in the CEGB’s history – with the whole operation having to be carried out in a way that wouldn’t create political and industrial relations problems. The strike cost the CEGB £2,000 million. But the lights had stayed on, and during that winter the highest-ever maximum demand was met without load shedding. As Frank Ledger commented, it showed the CEGB at its best.
The strike wasn’t the only thing concerning many staff at that time. Once again they were being faced with an-other reorganisation. As far back as 1976 a Labour Government committee had recommended changes in the structure of the industry. During the next couple of years there was speculation that all-purpose power boards would be set up, responsible for both generation and distribution as in Scotland. When a Conservative Government followed, no-one knew what might happen.
The Generating Board already had its own views of what was needed. There had been some changes since the major reorganisation of the early sixties. A Generation and Construction Division had been created, based at Barnwood, matched by a Transmission Design and Construction Division at Guildford. But the number of power stations the CEGB inherited had dropped from 253 to 131 without any major change in the way the organisational side was managed. This was about to alter and Gil Blackman, then a Board Member, had firm ideas. “We didn’t bring in consultants. We realised we had the knowledge and certainly the talent to do it ourselves.” So we set up an organisational development unit, which looked at the industry and asked what it was doing and why. The answer gave us the four main elements of production. The first was generation, and that could easily be handled as a single management unit. So could transmission. That left the overall job of operating the system and the engineering side, looking after the plant when it was built. That was the bible on which we were proceeding and everything was well under way when suddenly we were told we were going to be privatised.”
As public inquiries go, the Sizewell one, into the CEGB’s plans to build a pressurised water reactor on the Suffolk coast was memorable for its length rather than its intrinsic interest. True, its start on – January 11, 1983, was marked by a demo and a Press conference, as was its final day on March 7, 1985. But they were very much the highlights. In between there were 340 days of hearing, a British record, at which 200 witnesses gave a total of 16 million words of evidence. It was equivalent; it was calculated, to 24 copies of War and Peace. The average reader would doubtless have found that by contrast with the inquiry transcript Tolstoy’s blockbuster of the Napoleonic wars was fast-moving, even racy.
The power cuts due to the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1973 caused great inconvenience and discomfort in homes and cost industry dear. The effects would have been far worse if nuclear stations hadn’t been providing supplies.
It was the same story during the year-Iong miners’ strike of 1984 and other things besides industrial action could cause disruption to coal supplies. The Big Freeze of 1947 had proved that. Events like these demonstrated the value of having diverse fuel sources to safeguard supplies, as well as providing a cushion against unexpectedly severe price increases.
But although these were the main arguments for having an adequate proportion of nuclear-fuelled plant, economics were still important and so was reliability. These were the main factors when in the later 1970s the CEGB put proposals to the Government for having Pressurised Water Reactor plant. The PWR system had been under development in other countries for some 25 years, and it was believed that such a station would have lower capital and generation costs and a better performance than those of the AGRs which still hadn’t proved themselves.
The Labour Government accepted that this would provide an alternative option to AGRs for further development. But the climate of public opinion had changed, especially since the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. It hadn’t caused a radiation hazard and wouldn’t have happened except for a combination of inadequate design and operator training, but to many people that didn’t matter. Any nuclear plant posed a risk. No matter how great the care, sooner or later an accident would happen.
There was concern, too, about the transport of used fuel for reprocessing. Some local authorities through whose areas the fuel flasks passed even declared themselves Nuclear Free Zones. To provide reassurance the CEGB arranged a demonstration in which a train was crashed into a flask at 100mph. The flask successfully withstood the impact, but some doubters refused to be convinced. Although that demonstration didn’t come until 1984, the need for it is another indication of opinion at the time the Board announced it was applying to build a PWR station at Sizewell. Against that, the CEGB could point to their past record and it was impressive. Environmental monitoring at every nuclear station showed that discharges of radioactivity had been kept well within safe limits. The emergency arrangements first planned in the early 1960s had never been needed. All operators have stringent training and CEGB stations have been designed so that any potentially dangerous plant fault or operator error would shut the system down safely. Over and above that, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate – the Nil, was a powerful and highly-efficient independent watchdog. No nuclear plant could be installe until they were satisfied it would be safe, and they would go on checking throughout the rest of the plant’s life and during its dismantling.
Nuclear Fuel By Rail
A spectacular demonstration of the safety of transporting spent nuclear fuel by rail from nuclear power stations for reprocessing was held in 1984. Watched by millions on television, a heavy diesel locomotive pulling three passenger carriages was driven at 100 miles an hour into a nuclear fuel flask as it lay on the test track at Old Dalby in Leicestershire. The loco was crushed but the flask remained intact.
At the public inquiry into the Sizewell B proposal, every aspect was examined exhaustively. Then after the inquiry finished, but before the report was issued, came the Chernobyl disaster.
The Government sought the Nil’s advice about the implications and was told that their safety assessment principles would not permit the licensing of such a design as inherently unsafe as the Soviet one. Not only was that plant of a very different type to the PWR, there was a gross and fundamental difference in the quality of the safety approach. The CEGB was given approval to build Sizewell B and work started in 1987. During the run-up to privatisation another three PWR stations were being proposed. But then came the decisions that the existing nuclear stations and Sizewell B would remain in the public sector, and that no further PWRs would be built until the situation was reviewed in 1994.
Now it is John Collier as Chairman of Nuclear Electric who has the task of preparing that new company for the review. He sees one of his main objectives as regaining the confidence of the public in nuclear power. And although he admits that won’t be easy, his views are very clear: “I haven’t spent nearly 40 years of my working life in this industry just to preside over its run down and demise. Make no mistake; I see my role as planning for a future which includes building MORE nuclear power stations to maintain diversity and security of supply, and so help meet Britain’s growing energy needs in an environmentally acceptable way. It may be the end of one nuclear era. But another chapter is beginning.
BATTERSEA power station’s imposing architecture has made it not just a prized monument for Londoners but a film maker’s favourite too. Here pop singer Toyah Wilcox stars in a music video – just one of many productions shot on the site. Others include Superman III and a Monty Python film. Since the station stopped making electricity in 1983, strong public pressure to preserve it for some other, quite different, use has led to a number of development plans being put forward.
THE Government’s decision to privatise the electricity supply industry was one of the measures included in the Queen’s Speech to Parliament in 1987, though the way it would be done wasn’t spelled out until the 1988 White Paper. That envisaged the CEGB’s generating responsibilities and assets being split between two new companies, National Power and PowerGen, the larger of which (National Power) would inherit 70 per cent of the power stations, including the nuclear plant. The grid would retain its central role in scheduling and directing the use of power stations but it would be owned and operated by a grid company which itself would be owned by the 12 distribution companie – formerly the Area Boards.
There have been only six chairmen of the CEGB. The first was Sir Christopher Hinton, later Lord Hinton, served from 1957 to 1964, Sir Stanley Brown served from 1965 to 1972, Sir Arthur Hawkins from 1972 to 1977, Glyn England from 1977 to 1982, and Lord Marshall from 1982 to 1989. Gil Blackman was appointed Chairman in January this year.
Sir Christopher Hinton
Clearly a difficult road lay ahead, and the Generating Board took a positive view. As Walter Marshall – now Lord Marshall, explained: “We thought it better if we handled the change ourselves, anticipating theirlegislation by dividing into three Divisions. And that’s what we did.”
Breaking up the CEGB was no small job. Every asset, including the various headquarters buildings, had to be allocated between the three successor companies and so did every member of the 47,000 staff. Once again it was a time of major upheaval for many who found them selves having to move to different parts of the country and even to different types of jobs.
But there were further changes to come. As discussions progressed with the Area Boards, who would become the distribution companies, it became clear to the Government that the original proposals concerning nuclear aspects wouldn’t work out in the way intended. The magnox stations were too near the end of their lives for a private company to recover the costs of reprocessing the fuel (including a sizeable backlog) and
Sir Stanley Brown
decommissioning the stations. So in July, 1989, it was announced that the magnox stations would stay in the public sector.
That was a relatively small hiccup, not affecting the more important nuclear plant the AGR and PWR stations which would still go to National Power. Or so the Government thought until the economic implications became clear. To satisfy the City that it was worth investing in the National Power Company, high prices would have to be charged for electricity from those stations The reasons were complex and linked to the fact that nuclear stations had high capital costs.
Sir Arthur Hawkins
As Lord Marshall later put it, the benefits of nuclear power accumulate over half a century. The plain fact of the matter is that we are going to have a new electricity industry which is driven by short-term market considerations. It did not alter the strong arguments for having nuclear power to ensure diversity of fuel supply, but it did make the privatisation of nuclear power impracticable.
For the Record
STATISTICALLY the CEGB’s life was marked by improvements in key operational areas. There was a FALL in the real price of electricity – after allowing for inflation – that the Board charged the area boards, despite increases in the price of fossil fuel, one of its major costs. Expressed in 1988/89 price levels the CEGB charged the area boards 3.782 pence a unit in its first year. In 1988/89 (the last reported year) the price was 3.653 pence a unit, a reduction of 3.4 per cent. Over the same period the CEGB had to pay almost 22 per cent more in real terms for the fossil fuels it bought. An important factor in the electricity price reduction was improvements in thermal efficiency, a measure of the amount of energy from each tonne of fossil fuel burned. In 1958/59 the Board achieved a system thermal efficiency of 26.1 per cent; in 1988/ 89 the figure was 35.47 per cent. Despite big increases in the demand for electricity, the years also saw a fall in the number of staff. In 1958/59 the CEGB employed 53,128 staff to meet a peak demand of 20.889 mega-watts. Thirty years on, demand had increased to 46,875 megawatts and staff numbers had dropped to 47.201. Over the same period manpower productivity, expressed in units of electricity sold per employee, had risen from 1.59 million to 5.14 million.
In November, 1989, the Government announced that the AGRs and Sizewell B PWR station would also remain in the public sector, and that no further PWRs would be built until the situation was reviewed in 1994. To Lord Marshall in particular the announcement came as a blow. He felt unable to accept the Government’s decision and resigned, and Gil Blackman was appointed the last Chairman of the CEGB.
They weren’t the only ones to be affected. For national power staff, there was another period of uncertainty as they and assets had to be reallocated between National Power and the new Nuclear Electric Division. It was a last minute exercise which couldn’t be completed until early 1990 with Vesting Day only a couple of months away. On March 31, 1990, the assets of the CEGB will be formally vested in the new companies. It will be the end of an era, 42 years since the industry was nationalised.
During that time the whole pattern of generation and main transmission in England and Wales has completely changed, to the benefit of consumers. The industry had had its problems, and not just the difficulties inevitable in times of rapid development. Political decisions have been foisted on it. There have been the effects of a worldwide recession. But throughout it all, it has held fast to its aim: To provide the most economic and reliable supplies of electricity practicable. For many staff, they haven’t always been peaceful years. As one long-serving manager said, “Only one thing was certain. Whatever I’d planned for the day ahead, something different would happen.” But he added: “In spite of it all, something of the industry’s early spirit was still there, that come hell or high water only one thing really mattered. Making sure that supplies were kept flowing”
Gil Blackman put it differently: “The CEGB has been called a lot of things in its time. All I can say is that whatever the hell it was, it did a good job”
And that says it all.
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