UK – use of power reactors for weapons production

Puzzled by Plutonium?

24 January 2014

Today a defence minister, Philip Dunne, provided an answer to Parliament that is demonstrably inaccurate. His ministerial reply, distorts by omission. Either it is deliberate, or the Government is dangerously ignorant. Either way, it’s a worry.

The question, by veteran Labour backbencher Paul Flynn, asked the energy secretary “whether any plutonium created in UK civilian (a) commercial reactors and (b) research reactors has been put to use in (i) nuclear weapons in the UK or elsewhere and (ii) other military uses since each reactor type first started operating in the UK.” (

Mr Dunne responded he had been asked to reply on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, and said: “This was addressed in a Ministry of Defence April 2000 report on historical accounting and plutonium, a summary of which is available in the National Archives at the following link:

He then expanded, saying: “Plutonium for nuclear weapons was produced in the UK defence reactors at the Windscale Piles, Calder hall and Chapelcross. The UK Government announced a moratorium on the production of nuclear materials for explosive purposes in 1995. Since the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, all reprocessing in the UK has been conducted under the Euratom/International Atomic Energy Agency Safeguards agreement. There have been some withdrawals of plutonium from safeguards, for analysis, temporary handling or processing when such services were not available in the civilian sector. It is not possible to determine where this plutonium was created. These withdrawals are of a type and quantity not suitable for weapons use; information can be found on the Office of Nuclear Regulation website at the following link:

The reason why I dispute the minister’s reply is set out in this submission I made to a nuclear conference in April last year, entitled: Hinkley’s Hidden History.

You can read the full presentation below:

With the seminar discussion of the historical context of the nuclear reactor decisions leading to the new proposed third nuclear plant proposed by EDF for Hinkley Point, Dr David Lowry explains how the first nuclear power station at Hinkley played a key role in Britain’s military nuclear programme too.

The first public hint came with a public announcement on 17 June 1958 by the Ministry of Defence, on: “the production of plutonium suitable for weapons in the new [nuclear ] power stations programme as an insurance against future defence needs …” in the UK’s first generation Magnox reactor.

By chance, in a French State Defence Council meeting on the same day, 17 June 1958, involving France’s President de Gaulle discussed the use of a Magnox-style reactor − the Gaz-Grafite plant ironically called EDF-1 − at Chinon in the Loire Valley, to make France’s the plutonium explosives. (

A week later in the UK Parliament, Labour ‘s Roy Mason, asked why Her Majesty’s Government had “decided to modify atomic power stations, primarily planned for peaceful purposes, to produce high-grade plutonium for war weapons; to what extent this will interfere with the atomic power programme; and if he will make a statement?”

Paymaster General Reginald Maudling responded: “At the request of the Government, the Central Electricity Generating Board has agreed to a small modification in the design of Hinkley Point and of the next two stations in its programme so as to enable plutonium suitable for military purposes to be extracted should the need arise. The modifications will not in any way impair the efficiency of the stations. As the initial capital cost and any additional operating costs that may be incurred will be borne by the Government, the price of electricity will not be affected. The Government made this request in order to provide the country, at comparatively small cost, with a most valuable insurance against possible future defence requirements. The cost of providing such insurance by any other means would be extremely heavy.” (HC Deb 24 June 1958 vol 590 cc246-8)

This was challenged by Mr Mason, but the minister retorted: “The hon. Gentleman says that it is an imposition. The only imposition on the country would have arisen if the Government had met our defence requirements for plutonium by means far more expensive than those proposed in this suggestion.”

The headline story in the Bridgwater Mercury, serving the community around Hinkley, on that day (24 June} was: “MILITARY PLUTONIUM To be manufactured at Hinkley”

The article explained: “An ingenious method has been designed for changing the plant without reducing the output of electricity …” CND was reported to be critical, describing this as a “distressing step” insisting: “The Government is obsessed with a nuclear militarism which seems insane.”

The left wing Tribune magazine of 27 June 1958 was very critical of the deal under the headline ‘Sabotage in the Atom Stations’: “For the sake of making more nuclear weapons, the Government has dealt a heavy blow at the development of atomic power stations.” And warned: “Unless this disastrous decision is reversed, we shall pay dearly in more ways than one for the sacrifice made on the grim alter of the H-bomb.”

Then, on 3 July 1958, the United Kingdom and United States signed a detailed agreement on co-operation on nuclear weapons development, after several months of Congressional hearings in Washington DC, but no oversight whatsoever in the UK Parliament.

A month later Mr Maudling told backbencher Alan Green MP in Parliament that: “Three nuclear power stations are being modified, but whether they will ever be used to produce military grade plutonium will be for decision later and will depend on defence requirements. The first two stations, at Bradwell and Berkeley, are not being modified and the decision to modify three subsequent stations was taken solely as a precaution for defence purposes.” (HC Deb 01 August 1958 vol 592 cc228-9W228W,

Following further detailed negotiations, the Ango-American Mutual Defense Agreement on Atomic Energy matters to give it its full treaty title, was amended on 7 May 1959, to permit the exchange of nuclear explosive material including plutonium and enriched uranium for military purposes.

The Times’ science correspondent wrote on 8 May 1959 under the headline ‘Production of Weapons at Short Notice’: “The most important technical fact behind the agreement is that of civil grade – such as will be produced in British civil nuclear power stations- can now be used in weapons…” (

Within a month, Mr Maudling in Parliament told Tory back bencher, Wing Commander Eric Bullus who had asked the Paymaster-General what change there has been in the intention to modify three nuclear power stations to enable plutonium suitable for military use to be extracted should the need arise. “Last year Her Majesty’s Government asked the Central Electricity Generating Board to make a small modification in the design of certain power stations to enable plutonium suitable for military purposes to be extracted if need should arise. Having taken into account recent developments, including the latest agreement with the United States, and having re-assessed the fissile material which will become available for military purposes from all sources, it has been decided to restrict the modifications to one power station, namely, Hinkley Point.” (HC Deb 22 June 1959 vol 607 cc847-9 848

And so it may be seen that the UK’s first civil nuclear programme was used as a source of nuclear explosive plutonium for the US military, with Hinkley Point A the prime provider.

I explained in an earlier Blog entry last June – A Blast from the Past: Hinton’s hidden history − in more detail the reasons why I have strong reasons to believe plutonium created in civil commercial reactors was allocated to the unsafeguarded defence stockpile for military uses, based on an interview I conducted 31 years ago this month. See

Ministers in 2014 should not re-write history, to protect the nuclear business from its murky past embrace of nuclear weapons

A Blast from the Past: Hinton’s hidden history

25 June 2013

Thirty years ago this month, on 22 June 1983, Lord Hinton of Bankside, one of the pioneers and the greats of the early UK nuclear programme died.

Christopher Hinton had been the primary driving force responsible in the first post war decade for development of the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s giant nuclear production and reprocessing plants at Windscale, now Sellafield, the uranium enrichment plant at Capenhurst, the nuclear fuel production plant at Springfields, and innovative research reactors at Harwell (BEPO) and the experimental fast reactors at Dounreay, on Scotland’s northern shore, as Managing Director of theUKAEA’s Industrial Group.

Already knighted in 1951, he became the first chairman of the newly nationalised Central Electricity Generating Board in September 1957, (a post he held until 1964), and oversaw the first commercial nuclear reactors being brought into service. A later chairman of the CEGB, Lord (Walter Marshall) described him in an appreciation after Hinton’s death as “the man responsible for establishing Britain’s nuclear energy industry'”

 In 1965 he became a life peer, a decade after being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1954. He was also made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and the Institution of Chemical Engineers. Far from retiring, he remained very active in public life, becoming Chancellor of the University of Bath for 14 years to 1980, President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (1966-7), an honorary fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, an honorary associate at the Manchester College of Technology, a member of the international executive of the World Energy Conference, deputy chairman of the Electricity Supply Research Council, and a special advisor to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. In his 80s, he was still informally advising the World Bank.

I present his glittering CV, to establish without doubt, if anyone was in the “nuclear know,” it was Hinton.

Five months before his death, at 82, he gave me an extended interview in his office at the then Department of Energy – where he was still active as an advisor – as part of my doctoral research, reflecting on his long time at the centre of nuclear decisions. I wrote up the interview as a monograph (ERG 048)1 for the Energy Research Group at the Open University in Milton Keyes, where I was then based.

Lord Hinton obviously had an admirable lifetime of experience in the nuclear business, and when interviewed was still spritely, lucid and on top of the issue. Power News, the monthly newspaper produced by the CEGB for its staff, described him as “unswerving in his integrity,” in its own appreciation on Hinton’s contribution.
During my long interview with him, Lord Hinton was candid about many historical matters, and quite prepared to admit where he and his colleagues had, in hindsight , got some important matters wrong.

The interview took place in London on 19 January 1983, a few days after the Public Inquiry into the application by the CEGB to build an American –designed Pressurised Water Reactor at Sizewell in Suffolk. When it was opened in 1995, it was the first non UK-designed reactor to be commissioned in the UK.

At one point in the interview, Lord Hinton was explaining how plutonium created by irradiating fuel in the UK’s first generation of nuclear plants, the so-called “Magnox Reactors” was earmarked for future use. I brought to his attention that a detailed academic book by business specialist, Professor Leslie Hannah, on the creation of the UK’s national electricity generation industry, in which he wrote in respect of the CEGB’s first fleet of Magnox plants “some plutonium from the used fuel could be used for the British atomic bomb stockpile. The Americans also agreed to take some for military purposes.”

On hearing this, Lord Hinton expressed surprise, exclaiming “He’s said that has he?….This is interesting, because this is what I was refraining from saying, because I did not know whether I should be offending against the Official Secrets Act… it is a very daring statement”

He went on to muse: “I don’t know how much of this is secret. I don’t think any of the plutonium from the British reactors was needed by the British for defence purposes If it was, I was not conscious of it.”

He went on to explain that “While the initial industrial reactors were being built the UK AEA said they would like them to be so designed so military grade plutonium could be produced in them. The design was modified in such a way to make this possible.”

“The irradiated fuel elements were handed over to the UKAEA ( then also responsible for nuclear explosives production ) but its chairman, Lord Plowden did not sell them to the Americans, but exchanged them for enriched uranium…I don’t know whether anyone is in a position to say what the United States used it for, but if you use a little nouce you are forced to the conclusion that they were using it for military purposes, because what else were they using it for, because ethey had no fast reactor programme.”

At this point Lord Hinton called for a press cutting from The Financial Times covering the opening of the Sizewell Inquiry, which reported the evidence from John Baker, the CEGB’s managing director and chief policy witness. Hinton said “I’ve cogitated to what extent.. I tread a very delicate line here. You see my access to all information could be cut off if I use things indiscretly.”

He the read out a verbatim extract from Mr Baker’s evidence:, which asserted:
“Plutonium produced by CEGB reactors have never been applied to weapons use in the UK or elswhere…I am absolutely certain that that statement is incorrect.”
I intervened asking for clarification if he was questioning the “or elsewhere”, as Hinton had already made clear some plutonium from CEGB reactors had been swapped with US.

He retorted: “I am questioning the whole statement because it is deplorable. I don’t know whether they ought to have a PWR or not…” and added forcefully. “I don’t know whether it is right they should get permission for a PWR at Sizewell or not, but what is important is they shouldn’t tell bloody lies in their evidence!”

After some prompting over to which reactors he was specifically referring, Hinton explained it was “certainly true” in relation to the Berkeley and Bradwell reactors [the first two CEGB Magnox plants to come on stream].

So thirty years ago, the very first Chairman of the nationalised Central Electricity Generating Board denounced the evidence of its then managing director, John Baker, as not simply inaccurate, but as “bloody lies” within days of the evidence being presented to the Sizewell lnquiry Inspector, Sir Frank, later, Lord Layfield, now deceased.

In this extraordinary interview, Lord Hinton, just like his counterpart in the United States, Admiral Hyman Rickover, who created the US nuclear navy and promoted the PWR design, who in a valedictory lecture on his retirement told some painful truths on failures to his successors – “Success teaches us nothing; only failure teaches” – unburdened himself of some sensitive information he had thought was secret, but felt finally able to make public.

We should be grateful for his candour. Today’s nuclear operators should learn this lesson from the venerable Lord.