The martinet visits the old country

Admiral Hyman Rickover, the dictatorial, talented engineer responsible for America’s nuclear navy, visited England just before the launch of a major reactor. The minutes of the British Atomic Energy Executive record the following minor item that reverberates with subtlety. First, reporting is Leonard Owen, the 2IC of the country’s reactor building organization. I believe he is angling to succeed Christopher Hinton, the boss, who has been on leave for a while. While there are many reasons why the United Kingdom squanders its global lead in power reactors after 1956, one of them might well be that the second generation of leaders (i.e. Owen) is not as capable as the pioneers (i.e. Hinton). Second, Rickover was never “impressed” by anything other than himself. Third, one of Rickover’s visit aims could well have been to check out the British reactors for his congressional patrons back in Washington. Fourth, if Hinton had been the one reporting, would he have been so sycophantic? Most unlikely.

Mr. Owen said that Admiral Rickover had visited Risley, Dounreay, Calder Hall and certain of the PIPPA firms. He thought that the Admiral, in spite of a disposition at the outset to be both critical and outspoken, had been impressed by what he had seen and had concluded that the British effort on nuclear power gave the United States Atomic Energy Commission much food for thought. There was no doubt that Admiral Rickover’s own handling of the U.S. naval project constituted a remarkable achievement. It had been possible to answer the great majority of the questions which Admiral Rickover had asked. When answers could not be given the reasons for this had been explained to him.


Atomic Energy Executive. 1956. Atomic Energy Executive Meeting 18, Sep. 6, 1956 minutes. AB 41/664, National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom.