Divining motives

Facts are one thing, motives another. A historian can get lucky and tap into historical actors’ underlying aspirations and goals through revelatory memoirs, biographies, interviews or emails/letters, but in the nuclear field, opacity quickly came to be the prevalent stance. When the only historical documents are official reports, speeches, cautious meeting minutes, or newspaper articles, the spin can crush you.

I enjoyed reading thirty oral history interviews of employees of the huge Sellafield complex in northern England. Here’s physicist Graham Brightman:

I had an interview for a possible post at Sellafield in 1954. I made it clear to them that I was interested in the peaceful application of nuclear energy, atomic energy as it’s called. I wasn’t interested in the production or any aspect of the use of weapons of war. Now that statement on my part was honoured throughout my career . . . There were two sides as there are with many industries. I was interested in the nuclear electricity part, whilst recognizing that it wasn’t the only part and that, for example, that the subsequent reactors at Calder Hall, they weren’t just generating electricity. They were also generating plutonium, and there was a reprocessing plant, such that uranium could be recovered … and the dilemma posed to all employees and the wider world was the usual one – do the results of our efforts find application in peaceful or in a warlike manner?

Such idealism was stronger in the first two decades after World War II than many people realize.


Davies, Hunter, ed. 2012. Sellafield Stories: Life In Britain’s First Nuclear Plant. Constable, London., p. 103