Atomic Siamese twins: how the UK promoted the birth of nuclear proliferation
This week will see the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Calder Hall nuclear production facility at Sellafield on 17 October 1956.
Indeed, the Beacon Museum in Whitehaven, a short distance along the coast from Sellafield in Cumbria is holding month long celebration exhibition of the Calder Hall plant.
Calder Hall was opened by the young Queen Elizabeth on 17 October 1956, but it was never a ‘commercial’ civil nuclear plant. Her script writer penned the following for Her Majesty to say from the podium: “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.”
It was hailed as an “epoch-making” event by then Lord Privy Seal, Richard Butler. It was, however, a gross deception of the public
In fact it was clearly stated at the time of the plant’s opening, in a remarkable little book entitled Calder Hall: The Story of Britainís First Atomic Power Station, written by Kenneth Jay, and published in October 1956 by the Government’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell to mark Calder’s commissioning. Mr Jay wrote:
Major plants built for military purposes such as Calder Hall are being used as prototypes for civil plants . . . the plant has been designed as a dual-purpose plant to produce plutonium for military purposes as well as electric power . . . it would be wrong to pretend that the civil programme has not benefited from, and is not to some extent dependent upon, the military programme.”
An atomic “clock” registered the first generated nuclear power
Calder Hall was closed in March 2003, fifty years after its construction bagan. Interestingly, the first ñ nominally commercial – reactor at Hinkley, the Magnox ëAí plant, was operated for military production purposes too.
The first public hint came with a public announcement on 17 June 1958 by the Ministry of Defence, notably not the Ministry of Fuel and Power that oversaw the civilian nuclear programe – on: ìthe production of plutonium suitable for weapons in the new [nuclear ] power stations programme as an insurance against future defence needs in the Hinkley reactor. .
A week later in the UK Parliament, the Conservative Cabinet minister Paymaster General, Reginald Maudling told MPs: “At the request of the Government, the Central Electricity Generating Board has agreed to a small modification in the design of Hinkley Point and of the next two stations in its programme so as to enable plutonium suitable for military purposes to be extracted should the need arise.
The Government made this request in order to provide the country, at comparatively small cost, with a most valuable insurance against possible future defence requirements. The cost of providing such insurance by any other means would be extremely heavy.”
(The first nuclear power plant on the Hinkley Point site in Somerset was built in the 1960s.)
This was challenged by Mr Mason, who asked:
“Is the Paymaster-General aware that, as far as I am concerned, it is a disgusting imposition on what was primarily termed a peaceful programme in nuclear energy? Of course, I am pleased to hear that it does not interfere with the atomic energy programme prepared by the Government although I accept that with some measure of reservation? Was this really necessary, in view of the fact that we are producing, perhaps at a slow rate, plutonium.Particularly having regard to the fact that the Dounreay atomic breeder is coming into production very soon, was this imposition on our peaceful atomic power programme really necessary?”
The minister retorted:
“The hon. Gentleman says that it is an imposition. The only imposition on the country would have arisen if the Government had met our defence requirements for plutonium by means far more expensive than those proposed in this suggestion.”
The headline story in the Bridgwater Mercury, serving the community around Hinkley, on that day (24 June} was:
“MILITARY PLUTONIUM To be manufactured at Hinkley”
The article explained:
“An ingenious method has been designed for changing the plant without reducing the output of electricity”
CND was reported to be critical, describing this as a “distressing step” insisting:
“The Government is obsessed with a nuclear militarism which seems insane.”
Sadly, with the blinkered push to replace Trident today, not much seems has changed in the 58 years since!
The left wing Tribune magazine of 27 June 1958 was very critical of the deal under the headline
‘Sabotage in the Atom Stations’
“For the sake of making more nuclear weapons, the Government has dealt a heavy blow at the development of atomic power stations.
“Unless this disastrous decision is reversed, we shall pay dearly in more ways than one for the sacrifice made on the grim alter of the H-bomb.”
The late Michael Foot, that great inveterate peace-monger, who later became Labour leader, was then the Tribune editor.
Then, on 3 July 1958, the United Kingdom and United States signed a detailed agreement on co-operation on nuclear weapons development, after several months of Congressional hearings in Washington DC, but no oversight whatsoever in the UK Parliament! As this this formed the basis, within a mere five years, for the UK obtaining the Polaris nuclear WMD system from the UK, and some 20 odd years later for the UK to buy American Trident nuclear WMDs , the failure of Parliament to at least appraise the security merits of this key bilateral atomic arrangement was unconscionable.
A month later Mr Maudling told backbencher Alan Green MP in Parliament that:
“Three nuclear power stations are being modified, but whether they will ever be used to produce military grade plutonium will be for decision later and will depend on defence requirements. The first two stations, at Bradwell and Berkeley, are not being modified and the decision to modify three subsequent stations was taken solely as a precaution for defence purposes.”
“It in no way reflects any change in the assessment of the economics of the British nuclear power stations, and there is therefore no reason whatever why the sale abroad of British nuclear equipment should be in any way affected.”
(Hansard, 1 August 1958 vol 592 cc228-9W; http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/written_answers/1958/aug/01/nuclear-power-stations-plutonium#column_228w)
Following further detailed negotiations, the Ango-American Mutual Defense Agreement on Atomic Energy matters (defence is spelled with an ìsî even in the UK version of the Treaty, demonstrating the origin of the drafts!) , to give it its full treaty title, was amended on 7 May 1959, to permit the exchange of nuclear explosive material including plutonium and enriched uranium for military purposes.
The Times science correspondent wrote on 8 May 1959 under the headline
“Production of Weapons at Short Notice”
“The most important technical fact behind the agreement is that of civil grade – such as will be produced in British civil nuclear power stations- can now be used in weapons”
Within a month, Mr Maudling in Parliament told Tory back bencher, Wing Commander Eric Bullus who had asked the Paymaster-General what change there has been in the intention to modify three nuclear power stations to enable plutonium suitable for military use to be extracted should the need arise.
“Last year Her Majesty’s Government asked the Central Electricity Generating Board to make a small modification in the design of certain power stations to enable plutonium suitable for military purposes to be extracted if need should arise. Having taken into account recent developments, including the latest agreement with the United States, and having re-assessed the fissile material which will become available for military purposes from all sources, it has been decided to restrict the modifications to one power station, namely, Hinkley Point.” Hansard, 22 June 1959 vol 607 columns 847-9 http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1959/jun/22/nuclear-power-stations#column_848
And so it may be seen that the UKs first civil nuclear programme was used as a source of nuclear explosive plutonium for the US military, with Hinkley Point A the prime provider.
Two decades later, Wales national daily, the Western Mail, on 8 October 1984 reported that the largest Magnox reactor in the UK, at Wylfa on Anglesey, had also been used to provide plutonium for the military. Plutonium from both reactors went into the UK military stockpile of nuclear explosives, and could well still be part of the UK Trident warhead stockpile today.
Subsequent research by the Scientists Against Nuclear Arms, published in the prestigious science weekly journal, Nature and presented to the Sizewell B Public Inquiry in 1983-4 and Hinkley C Public Inquiry in 1989, has demonstrated that around 6700 kilogrammes of plutonium, was shipped to the United States under the military exchange agreement, which stipulates explicitly that the material must be used for military purposes by the recipient county.
To put this quantity into context, a nuclear warhead contains around 5 kilos of plutonium so this is a very significant quantity
Earlier this month, a commentary article by Oxford University academic, Dr Peter Wynn Kirby, in The New York Times ( “Britain’s Nuclear Cover-Up, October 11, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/11/opinion/britains-nuclear-cover-up.html?_r=1) discussed the possibility that he first newbuild nuclear reactor to be built in 20 years in the UK, at Hinkley C, also has military links, this time not to nuclear explosives production, but to nuclear reactor propulsion.
As Dr Kirby states: “A painstaking [100-page] study of obscure British military policy documents, released last month by the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, demonstrates that the government and some of its partners in the defense industry, like Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems, think a robust civilian nuclear industry is essential to revamping Britain’s nuclear submarine program.”
Nuclear deception has a long and undistinguished history: it seems we have come full circle 60 years after the birth of nuclear power as the Siamese twin of military nuclear technology six decades after Calder Hall’s opening.