British atoms for war?

Toward the end of 1957, the new British prime minister, Harold Macmillan (less than a year in the job after his predecessor Anthony Eden was ignominiously outed followed the Suez Crisis fiasco) met President Eisenhower in Washington (that’s them front and left below) and hammered out an agreement that he thought very favorable to the United Kingdom. Engineer and longtime Harwell worker Fred Roberts notes this:

Almost coincidental with this agreement, the British Ministry of Defence issued the following statement: “In order to provide insurance against future defence needs, certain of the civil nuclear power reactors now in the early construction or design stage are being modified so that the plutonium produced as a by-product is suitable for use, if the need arises, for military purposes. These modi­fications will not delay the construction of the reactors and will not affect their normal operation as civil power stations. This decision does not affect power stations at Bradwell, Berkeley and Hunterston where construction and installation are already well advanced. Hunterston is already designed as to be suitable for this purpose anyway.”

The modifications referred to in this statement were mainly concerned with fuel loading and storage provision to allow for an increase in throughput required by the military plutonium cycle of operation. The outcome of the MOD announcement was that the magnox reactors were to be optimised to favour the military plutonium production cycle and so the CEGB so-called civil stations could easily become military like Calder Hall or Chapelcross. Indeed the CEGB stations did produce “military” plutonium as we shall see below, although in the event, only Hinkley Point A station reactors received the modifications referred to in the MOD statement. One reason for this was the switch from an A-bomb stockpile to H-bombs following the successful explosion of a British H-bomb in May 1957. Although we traded our pluto­nium for American tritium, a major constituent of H-bombs, the net plutonium demand was significantly less than envisaged back in the 1950s.

Roberts, Fred. 1999. Sixty Years of Nuclear History: Britain’s Hidden Agenda. Jon Carpenter, Charlbury. pp. 79-80.

I’ve seen many opinions over the years as to whether British power reactors were really “for war rather than peace,” with a variety of conclusions. I don’t cover the issue much in my book because of a handful of reasons that might sound shallow: (i) all the early reactor countries experienced an insatiable demand for military plutonium that meant early power reactors were on standby to produce the war material; (ii) in practice America and England over-produced plutonium and soon enough had no need for more; and (iii) as Roberts says, the real impact was design bastardisation of a small number of early power reactors. I’m not belittling the deeper issues that some might analyze, only noting that from my point of view, the early power reactors were “Atoms for Peace” reactors, perhaps slightly compromised.

Eisenhower-Macmillan meeting 1957