Friday, 24 January 2014

Puzzled by Plutonium?


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.” [183738]

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. (emphasis added)

The UK Government announced a moratorium on the production of nuclear materials for explosive purposes in 1995.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:

(23 January 2014: Column 286W)

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.?”

 to be  informed by the Paymaster General, Reginald Maudling

 “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 Click and drag the image to move around the pagenuclear power stations- can now be used in weapons…”

(Click and drag the image to move around the page

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.” (emphasis added)

(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

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