CND General Secretary Dr Kate Hudson importantly reminds us about the extremely important public service role the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has undertaken to ensure politicians and the public are aware of the dangers of our Atomic Age. (“Marking 60 years of the CND,” 21 February; https://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/article/marking-60-years-cnd)
But Kate overlooks one interesting evolution of CND’s campaigning.
At the time when CND was founded in the late 1950s, many on the progressive left were vehemently opposed to nuclear weapons, but saw some solace that the taming of the atom could be put to peaceful uses.
Indeed some scientists who had worked on the bomb in wartime, re-directed their nuclear efforts to Atoms for Peace. The UN established its Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy international conferences in Geneva in 1955. The British Atomic Scientists Association- led by the legendary peace scientist Dr Joseph Rotblat ( the only scientist to resign from the Manhattan Project that developed the US nuclear bomb, on principled moral grounds)- promoted Atoms for Peace ( in reality a cynical project promoting US global nuclear technology dominance launched by President Eisenhower at the UN in New York in December 1953) using a special atomic train taking nuclear scientists around the country promoting nuclear power.
But it was a charade. 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 (after the fuel type, magnesium oxide) reactor.
A week later in the UK Parliament, Labour Roy Mason, who incidentally later became Defence Secretary, asked (HC Deb 24 June 1958 vol 590 cc246-8246) 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.”
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 then left wing Tribune magazine (on 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.
“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.”
The late Michael Foot, that great inveterate peace-monger, who later became Labour leader, was then the Tribune editor.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.”
“It in no way reflects any change in the assessment of the economics of the British nuclear power stations, and there is therefore no reason whatever why the sale abroad of British nuclear equipment should be in any way affected.”
(HC Deb 01 August 1958 vol 592 cc228-9W 228W)
This shows why CND was right to increasing become skeptical of nuclear power, and from 1983, when it presented evidence on plutonium proliferation, at the Sizewell B nuclear Public Inquiry, to fully oppose all nuclear power.