Christopher Hinton was the engineering overlord of Britain’s huge world-leading push into power reactors from the early 1950s. He was a towering personality. Somehow he managed to combine blistering honesty (he battled bureaucrats all his life) with an anxious need to preserve a hallowed reputation. A number of years ago, I came across a classic invited speech he made in 1954, in which he described the very first Windscale reactors, designed not to produce electricity but to produce plutonium for the nation’s atomic bomb breakout. The speech is a model of precision and concision, couched in his usual eloquent prose. One paragraph that caught my attention, outside the technical explication was this:
I had thought to make use of this sage advice in the book. The trouble is, I think Hinton dreamed up “essential simplicity” out of nothing. The paragraph above is, I believe, a construct, something to believe in after the event. The history of Windscale and Britain’s other reactors was always tough and turbulent. The “unknown” never “ceased to give cause for alarm,” as was illustrated aptly when Windscale Unit 1 burnt out of control nearly four years later. So … I still enjoy the above passage (isn’t “their high content of the unknown” neat?) but view it as akin to presidents dressing up their autobiographies to present deeds in the best light.