Calder Hall crumbled in seconds. Once symbols of progress and might for a nation focused on the future, the four lofty cooling towers at Sellafield, England, were demolished on Saturday after becoming instead a symbol of decay.
Fifty-one years after the world's first commercial civil nuclear power plant was constructed, the continent that has embraced nuclear energy the most is also the one that is relegating the technology to history.
There are more than 440 nuclear power plants around the globe, supplying about 16% of the world's energy. The highest number of plants is in the United States, where in certain states nuclear energy is an increasingly popular choice. But the countries that rely most heavily on nuclear energy - France, Lithuania, Belgium, etc. - are in Europe.
The continent, however, is increasingly divided by an all-or-nothing attitude. In Europe, it seems, countries are either feverishly building new power plants, or furiously tearing them down. Some countries, like England, are doing both, replacing older facilities that are no longer safe or efficient with newer models.
For years after the initial surge of interest in nuclear energy, when the atomic age promised endless bounty at minimal cost, countries lost interest in nuclear power as environmental concerns took prominence. Then, in 2002, Finland's parliament made the first decision to build a new nuclear power plant in Western Europe for more than a decade.
Ireland at first fell in love with the idea of nuclear energy, moving in 1968 to build a power plant. Thirteen years later, though, having fallen out of love with the idea, the Irish dropped those plans. Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden, meanwhile, have all decided not to build new plants, or intend to phase out nuclear power altogether. Austria has not only stamped out any domestic nuclear development but also seeks to ensure that none of its neighbors will build nuclear power plants near its border.
Italy has taken the hardest line of all against nuclear power. Shortly after the explosion of Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl sent radioactive fallout across Ukraine, Belarus and Russia in 1986, Italy voted to scrap its four nuclear reactors, completing the hasty shut-downs by 1990. Since then, however, Italy has had to import energy - produced by nuclear plants, no less - and seen its energy costs skyrocket.
The Netherlands moved to shut down its reactors, but a few years later a new government put that on hold. In Poland, construction of four nuclear power plants was halted halfway through; now, after investing in Lithuania's nuclear power program, the country intends to built a plant of its own within the next 15 years.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, France, insisting on self-sufficiency in energy despite lacking the natural resources to accomplish it, has adopted nuclear power so strongly that it derives 78 percent of its energy from nuclear plants.
The position of Europe on nuclear energy, then, is not merely ambiguous, it is downright torn. Only time will tell whether Middle East countries, enamored with nuclear power as they are at the moment, will be as excited about their nuclear plans in the future as they are now. - S.S.