Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A Blast from the Past: Hinton’s hidden history


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.

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