In September 1957, Leonard Owen, the new head of the Risley organization that built reactors, enrichment plants, etc., was chairing a meeting of his executive, when he spoke of an upcoming tour of Britain’s nuclear facilities by America’s powerful Joint Committee for Atomic Energy (JCAE), a small group of elected politicians with oversight of the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington.

Included in his remarks was this minuted aside: “He understood from Sir John Cockcroft that the Congressional Committee were pressing the A.E.C. to build a gas-cooled reactor, which the A.E.C. did not want to do, and the team would be seeking any justification for saying that Calder Hall was unsuccessful.” In other words, JCAE envied the United Kingdom its rapid ascension to being the largest builder of nuclear power plants, and was coming to town to check out the Brits. America’s massive builder and regulator of nuclear power plants, AEC, would prefer JCAE received a poor impression on their UK tour.

But wait, there is even more nuance here. Three days later, the executive of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority also discussed the upcoming JCAE tour: “The secretary said it had not proved possible to avoid having the members of the Congressional Committee visit Dounreay. It was, however, intended to ensure that they did not see Zeta during their visit to Harwell.” Translating: JCAE would grudgingly be allowed to visit the Dounreay building site where Britain’s first experimental breeder reactor was being erected, but could be denied a view of Zeta, a tiny zero-energy machine (the kind of machine the JCAE politicians could readily see in their home country). This denial must have seemed a minor, if spiteful, victory to the British.

I do enjoy seeing the archives reveal rivalries such as these, between America’s reactor builders and its politicians, and between England and its colonial offshoot. Such archival glimpses might seem trivial, but both of these rivalries will, in time, materially impact the history of nuclear energy.

UK archival documents