On 3 July 1958 the United States Government signed a bilateral agreement with the UK, the effect of which has for sixty years to completely undermine the moral authority of Washington and London to preach to atomic aspirant countries that nuclear weapons are bad for national security; and civilian nuclear activities should be kept separate from any military uses.
This deal - often called the US-UK Mutual Defense Agreement (MDA) on atomic energy matters (in which the word defence is spelled with an ‘s’, even in the official UK Treaty series version, indicating its political provenance) – is the agreement that provided the underpinning framework for the subsequent Polaris and Trident nuclear weapons of mass destruction deals with US, as well as facilitating the testing of British nuclear warheads in Nevada, after the 1963 partial nuclear test ban treaty halted the atmospheric testing of nuclear explosive devices. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1958_US%E2%80%93UK_Mutual_Defence_Agreement)
The MDA was signed in the wake of three key security technology developments towards the end of 1957: the successful launch of the first Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957; the accidental fire and radiological contamination arising from the Windscale weapons plutonium production ‘Pile” at Sellafield on 8-10 October; and the UK successfully testing a hydrogen bomb in the Operation Grapple test on 8 November 1957.
The other politically interesting thing about the MDA is hardly anybody has ever heard of it, including most involved in nuclear disarmament campaigning, even though a group of researchers from the Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (SANA) group – now renamed Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) – presented detailed evidence on the MDA and plutonium misuse on behalf of CND to the Sizewell B nuclear public inquiry in 1984.
(Investigative journalist Rob Edwards, who co-ordinated the Sizewell Working Group for CND, subsequently wrote an insightful 32 page pamphlet, ‘Nuclear Power, Nuclear Weapons: the Deadly Connection’, which CND published in august 1985)
The political context of the MDA is complex. It was developed in late 1957, after the Eisenhower Administration recognized the post war so-called ‘McMahon’ Atomic Energy Act ( named after its Brien McMahon sponsoring senator , who chaired the Senate Committee on Atomic Energy ), draconian legislation that excluded all the US’s wartime allies, who had collaborated at Los Alamos and elsewhere on developing world’s first nuclear explosive device, from being able to share nuclear secrets in peacetime, even in its amended form from 1954, was no longer supporting America’s national security interests
The Wikipedia summary account of what happened next reads as follows:
“While the British knew what they wanted, there was no consensus among the Americans as to what they wanted to provide. The United States Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was concerned that a special relationship with Britain might complicate the United States' relationships with its other allies. Strauss in particular felt that a proposal to give hydrogen bomb secrets to the British would likely not get past the JCAE, and counselled drafting amendments that were sufficiently vague as to give the president the authority he needed without arousing its ire. Eisenhower declared that the US and UK were "interdependent", and pledged to ask Congress to amend the McMahon Act. Crucially, he managed to secure the support of Carl T. Durham, the chairman of the influential Joint Congressional Committee eon Atomic Energy (JCAE). Eisenhower met with Congressional leaders on 3 December 1957, and pressed for more discretion to cooperate with all America's NATO allies, and not just Britain. Indeed the administration negotiated agreements with Australia, Canada and NATO. While Eisenhower did not yet have wholehearted support for the proposal, outright opposition from Senator Clinton P. Anderson failed to attract much support. On 27 January 1958, Strauss sent Durham the administration's proposed legislative changes, and the JCAE Subcommittee on Agreements for Cooperation, chaired by Senator John O. Pastore, held hearings from 29 to 31 January. Quarles and Major General Herbert Loper, the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Atomic Energy Affairs, were forced to deal with pointed questions about nuclear proliferation. British information security, or the lack thereof, no longer seemed so important now that the Soviet Union was apparently ahead, and the United Kingdom had independently developed the hydrogen bomb, but the JCAE objected to the terms of the proposed deal to trade British uranium-235 for American plutonium, under which the US would pay the UK $30 per gram for plutonium that cost $12 per gram to produce.
The amendments were passed by the House of Representatives on 19 June, but not without changes. It now limited exchanges of nuclear weapons data to nations that had made substantial progress in the field. The same restriction applied to the actual transfer of non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons. American nuclear weapons were to remain under US custody and could only be turned over to allies in the event of war. The sale of nuclear reactors for submarines and nuclear fuel for them and other military reactors was permitted. Only Britain qualified as a nation that had made substantial progress. The bill passed Congress on 30 June 1958, and was signed into law by Eisenhower on 2 July 1958. The 1958 US–UK Mutual Defence Agreement was signed by Dulles and Samuel Hood, the British Minister in Washington, on 3 July 1958, and approved by Congress on 30 July 1958.”
[The MDA was subsequently further amended in May of 1959, to allow direct transfer of special nuclear material” (ie nuclear explosives) between the UK and US.]
An extremely detailed 340-page book by Professor emeritus John Simpson, titled ‘The Independent Nuclear State: the United States, Britain and the Military Atom,’ was published by MacMillan Press in 1983, and described the preceding and subsequent courses of events, and remains the most authoritative documented account of the MDA and its political and strategic implications.
The 1958 MDA hearings (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=umn.31951d02097503w;view=1up;seq=1) in Congress provided significant substance for Professor Simpson’s magisterial scholarly study. Below I reproduce some telling extracts:
Lewis L Strauss, chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, told the JCAE that the desired collaboration with the UK :
It would assist their civilian program primarily, but this is not primarily to assist those programs. This is primarily to supply plutonium to us for our unrestricted use, at present, our military use.” (emphasis added)
“It necessitates making arrangements, as far as such can be negotiated, for making the most effective use of reactor products obtainable from our allies.
Atomic Energy Commissioner Vance: “We are now proposing to furnish weapons for the defense of these [Euratom] countries and those weapons are going to require plutonium. It seems to me this is thoroughly consistent …. ( redaction of classified discussion] ….that if we are going to supply weapons to be located on their territory for their defense –that the plutonium which they produce and sell to us could be use dfo rmakingthe very weapons they want.”
(The State Department, recognising the diplomatic danger that this would compromise the civilian aim of the US ‘Atoms for Peace’ program, initiated in December 1953 by President Eisenhower in a celebrated speech to the United Nations, objected, and the proposal was dropped for Euratom countries and Japan, an Atoms for Peace recipient of US nuclear assistance, as well as Australia and Canada. But the UK was neither in Euratom at that time, nor was part of the Atoms for Peace program, having launched its own in the early 1940s, so could fulfill a key role in nuclear explosive supplies.)
Following a visit to Washington DC on 7-8 June 1958 of British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, barely a week after the JCAE hearing were completed, during which he pressed Congress to swiftly agree to the amended Atomic Energy Act, the MDA was duly completed.
Back in Britain, the Government was preparing to slowly unveil the implications of the deal being done in Washington for the UK . 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 (Hansard 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.”
“Is the Paymaster-General aware that, as far as I am concerned, it is a disgusting imposition on what was primarily termed a peaceful programme in nuclear energy? Of course, I am pleased to hear that it does not interfere with the atomic energy programme prepared by the Government—although I accept that with some measure of reservation? Was this really necessary, in view of the fact that we are producing, perhaps at a slow rate, plutonium from our present]—although we are producing plutonium from our present….Particularly having regard to the fact that the Dounreay atomic breeder is coming into production very soon, was this imposition on our peaceful atomic power programme really necessary?
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.
“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.”
This was no coincidence: the late Michael Foot, that great inveterate peace-monger, who later became Labour leader, was then the Tribune editor.
Then, on 3 July 1958, the United Kingdom and United States signed the 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! The failure of Parliament to at least appraise the security merits of this key bilateral atomic arrangement was utterly unconscionable.
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.”
(Hansard 1 August 1958 vol 592 cc228-9W228W)
Some eleven months later, Mr Maudling 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)
(Hansard, 22 June 1959 vol 607 cc847-9 848)
Between 5,440 and 7,000 kiligrammes of plutonium form nominally civilian British Magnox reactors was subsequently bartered with the US under the MDA provisions for use in the US in ‘defense’ programs (New Statesman, 15 May 2006, www.newstatesman.com/node/153250)
A nuclear warhead usually contains around 5 kilogrammes of plutonium.