The Atomic Energy Authority was born in July 1954. In the following article DH Peirson, Secretary of the Authority until 1971, gives a personal commentary on the Authority, particularly in its early years. Originally published in ATOM Number 225, July 1975
Twenty-One Years On
We were born in a cage in St Giles' Court, and the Ministry of Supply fed us with paper through the bars.
We could not stay long at St Giles' Court. The Ministry wanted its cage back; in any case, we felt that it consorted ill with our dignity to be tucked in between the red light district of Soho and the honky-tonk of Tin Pan Alley. So one of the first tasks was to find a permanent home for the "London Office". (From the safe distance of retirement, I venture to suggest that one of the Authority's most foolish decisions was to abjure the word "Headquarters". An organisation with a Head has a Headquarters - QED.) The Junior United Services Club chose this time to merge with a senior institution, and we were able to get the excellent site in Charles II Street, which has remained the home of the Authority's London Office.
The choice is not free from criticism. The Public Accounts Committee thought we should have led the decentralisation movement by setting up house in one of the outer suburbs. I remember Sir Edwin Plowden (as he then was) returning from the PAC muttering "Petts Wood indeed!" as if Petts Wood had been a village in Outer Mongolia.
Those were the days of expansion. The authority more than doubled its numbers in its first 10 years. I remember chairing meetings with the Staff Side to discuss the drafting of the Authority's Redundancy Scheme, and I think few if any of those present took very seriously the possibility that it would have practical application. With the benefit of hindsight we can now see that some of the Authority's major problems might be less the rate of growth had been checked rather earlier than in fact happened. Of course it would have meant that some projects would have gone more slowly or been started later; but if, for example, the start of the Dounreay Fast Reactor had been delayed by three or four years, would there have been any effect on the long-term fast reactor programme? Judging by progress in other countries, I doubt it. One of the lessons of nuclear energy experience is that it does not always be pay to be first.
The crest of the wave was the Royal Opening of Calder Hall on 17th October 1956. This was a fascinating exercise in planning and protocol. Although many things came near to causing chaos, including a force 10 gale on the previous night, which threatened to demolish the Royal pavilion and the marquees, in fact all went well; the sun shone, Her Majesty was gracious, and the reactor worked at the first time of asking. The problem which caused most pain and grief was the selection of the 22 people to be honoured by taking lunch with Her Majesty, as the Windscale staff dining room seating 23 at absolute maximum. How to choose the 22 most important people out of their glittering array, in the certain knowledge that for everyone selected there would be at least two who would seethe with resentment?