On this day in 1956, the unassuming Cumbrian town of Workington found itself at the very vanguard of the atomic age. 

Just 15 miles down the windswept coast stood Calder Hall, a massive nuclear reactor that had come to dominate the Royal Ordnance Factory built in Sellafield during the Second World War.

Originally built to make plutonium for Britain's nuclear weapons programme, Calder Hall was now ready to divert the by-product of that process - electricity - into British homes.

This remarkable feat of engineering was a world first. Although the nuclear programmes of both the United States and the Soviet Union dwarfed Britain's own ambitions in the field, neither superpower had managed to illuminate Civvy Street with the energy released by nuclear fission.

And so it was that dignitaries and scientists from all corners of the globe converged on Britain's remote north-west coast to see Queen Elizabeth II open the world's first full-scale nuclear power station.

 The Queen gives her speech before pulling the switch that brought Calder Hall into operation.

The event was also attended by plenty of optimism. For many, the "epoch-making" moment heralded the "second industrial revolution"- a new age powered by electricity "too cheap to meter" and devoid of fossil fuels and their attendant pollutants.

As can be seen in the video above, the Queen was more circumspect. Standing beneath an awning that bore a rather disquieting resemblance to a mushroom cloud, she made a pointed reference to mankind's first practical foray into nuclear physics.

[Read more: March 28, 1979 - Pennsylvania panics as reactor fails at Three Mile Island nuclear plant]

"This new power, which has proved itself to be such a terrifying weapon of destruction, is harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community," she said.

“A grave responsibility is placed upon all of us to see that man adds as much to his stature by the application of this new power as he has by its discovery. 

"Future generations will judge us, above all else, by the way in which we use these limitless opportunities which providence has given us and to which we have unlocked the door."

And with that, at precisely 12:16 GMT, she pulled a lever which directed nuclear power into the National Grid for the first time.

Seconds later, the residents of Workington - a town built on coal and iron ore - became, imperceptibly, the first people in the world to receive light, heat and power from fission.

Nuclear energy's rehabilitation was complete and Sellafield was the apple of Britain's eye. 

It was not to last.