Stornoway Nuclear Power Station

21 03 2013

In this age of rogue windmills springing up on our moors causing havoc in their wake, it’s reassuring to see a tether to our environmentally sensitive past in the form of the Battery Point power station. Capable of churning out a respectable 23.5 megawatts of electrical power by harnessing the natural energy of carbon, this scientific marvel doesn’t even require the wind to be blowing in order to generate the juice you need to power your hi-tech Nissan Leaf, and even generates thick clouds of black diesel smoke to shield us all from the ravaging effects of potentially damaging solar rays.

The station began its active life in 1950 but few are aware that a few years prior to this, the station was tightly wrapped in fuigheags of wartime tension and subterfuge.

On the 10th May 1940 at the Université de Toulouse’s Science department, eminent physics professor Dr Karcsi DeTerisse made an astonishing breakthrough. While attempting to find a way to prevent his morning croissant from disintegrating and festooning his beard with crumbs, Dr DeTerisse accidentally discovered a completely safe and clean way of splitting the atom and creating vast amounts of power, only with no harmful byproducts. Upon running into the street stark naked (save for his croissant) in celebration, his joy was tempered as he spotted newspaper headlines declaring that the Germans had crossed the border and were advancing across the nation. Realising that his monumental discovery (and his croissant) were likely to fall into Nazi hands, he immediately fled for England.

Upon his arrival in England and after drying himself off, he made his way to Cambridge where he met up with his old friend and fellow ex-pat Frenchman Dr Olivier Auguste Spreille, with whom he had previously worked after both had received their doctorates. Over the following weeks, the two friends studied the war situation with alarm as the German army pushed ever further West until they were threatening to cross the Channel. (There was only one Channel in those days, as ITV hadn’t started broadcasting yet.)

By this time, the Allied Forces were in dire need of ready access to electrical power for the manufacture of munitions as the transport of coal by land and sea was becoming increasingly difficult due to German bombing raids. DeTerisse had a brainwave. He and Dr Spreille would decamp to the furthest area of land from the Germans that they could manage and, there, would set up the world’s first ever Nuclear Power Station, and thus would revolutionise the war effort. A cursory glance at the map led the two physicists to the Isle of Lewis.

An uncomfortable week in a fishing boat later, the pair set foot in Stornoway where they set about finding a suitable location, as well as some clothing for Dr DeTerisse who had been stark naked since the day he left France. Now with his modesty concealed by a blue boiler suit and Arnish boots, DeTerisse chose Battery Point as the location for his endeavour. His reasoning was two-fold. a) It was accessible by sea, and b) it was handy for the bus stop and Cathy Ghall’s shop was just round the corner. At this time, he also began to go by the name “Kenny” partly in honour of his favourite local chain-smoking guitar player and partly because nobody in Lewis could pronounce “Karcsi” properly anyway. Olivier followed suit and dropped the pretentious and unnecessary second ‘i’ from his name. Now fully integrated into Lewis society, the project began to take shape.

Construction of the Stornoway Nuclear Station began in 1943. Construction was restarted again in 1944 when it was discovered that the Irish building firm that had been subcontracted by the town council had got their orders mixed up and thought they were meant to be knocking it down. (Meanwhile, the rest of the Irish crew had rebuilt the Nicolson Institute). The work progressed well and a huge stockpile of old herring barrels were collected on site since, as the interconnector had not been invented yet, they needed some sort of way to ship the electricity out to the waiting world.

However, just as the project was nearing completion, disaster struck. The War ended. Well, alright, that wasn’t such a bad thing, but for DeTerisse and Spreille’s Nuclear Power Station it was a catastrophe. Without the Nazi threat, the need for vast amounts of energy had dwindled and aside from this, government officials were wary of a bearded physicist
smothered in croissant flakes who wore Arnish boots on his hands. The project was mothballed before a single atom was split, or even dented. The glory of having the world’s first functional Nuclear Power Station fell instead to the Russkies, albeit a few years later and using a more primitive and dangerous system than DeTerisse’s., which never did see the light of day.

DeTerisse and Spreille left the island in 1950, just as their former building was fitted with diesel generators and chugged into service providing the town and its environs with electricity of a more low-tech sort. Prior to their departure, the Town Council decided to honour the French professors for their heroic and visionary work and, to this day, the legacies of Kenny DeTerisse and Oliver Spreille live on in the Stornoway streets which bear their names.