Nuclear weapons deals with USA – Hinkley’s secret history

Hinkley’s hidden history Morning Star UK 21 July 2013 by David Lowry With the coalition government’s decision to back a third nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point on Somerset’s coast and the ongoing debate over Trident replacement, it’s interesting to take a look back at the origins of Britain’s nuclear programme.

When the British nuclear power and weapons programmes were born, a different foreign power, the United States, was intimately involved in the planning.

The first public hint came with an MoD announcement in June 1958 on “the production of plutonium suitable for weapons in the new [nuclear] power stations programme as an insurance against future defence needs” at Britain’s first-generation Magnox reactor (named after the fuel type, magnesium oxide).

A week later in Parliament, Labour’s Roy Mason asked why the government had “decided to modify atomic power stations, primarily planned for peaceful purposes, to produce high-grade plutonium for war weapons.”

He was informed by 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 following month, the US and British governments signed a mutual defense – spelt with an “s” even in the official British version, so you can guess where it was authored – co-operation agreement on atomic energy matters.

The agreement was intended to circumvent the draconian restrictions of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, which sought to retain all nuclear secrets within the US, even though many foreign nationals had worked collaboratively with US counterparts for six or more years on nuclear R&D.

The deal was reached after several months of congressional hearings in Washington DC, but no oversight whatsoever in the British Parliament.

As this formed the basis, within a mere five years, for Britain obtaining the Polaris nuclear WMD system from the US, and some 20-odd years later for Britain to buy US Trident nuclear WMD, the failure of Parliament to at least appraise the security merits of this key bilateral atomic arrangement was unconscionable…….

And so it may be seen that the Britain’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.

The reason there was a swap between Britain and the US of weapons-suitable highly enriched uranium and plutonium was the US had huge surpluses of uranium, but wanted more plutonium than its nuclear production complex at Hanford could deliver, while the British first-generation “commercial” Magnoxes, which were scaled-up plutonium production factories, were perfect for producing military-suitable plutonium as they had online refuelling systems to optimise plutonium over electricity production.

They produced perfect plutonium in surplus, but Britain lacked sufficient highly enriched uranium, so an exchange deal was mutually beneficial.

Two decades later in 1984 Wales national daily the Western Mail reported that the largest Magnox reactor in Britain, at Wylfa on Anglesey, had also been used to provide plutonium for the military.

Plutonium from both reactors went into the British military stockpile of nuclear explosives, and could well still be part of the British Trident warhead stockpile today.

Subsequent research by the Scientists Against Nuclear Arms, published in the prestigious science weekly journal Nature and presented to the Sizewell B and Hinkley C public inquiries in the ’80s, has demonstrated that around 6,700kg of plutonium was shipped to the US under the military exchange agreement, which stipulates explicitly that the material must be used for military purposes by the recipient country.

To put this quantity into context, a nuclear warhead contains around 5kg of plutonium.

Is it any wonder the Atoms for Peace movement began to demand “safeguards” to deter diversion of civilian nuclear plants to military misuse?

After all, the US and Britain knew that such deadly diversion was possible – they had demonstrated it themselves.

The trouble is that safeguards are misleading. They are neither safe, nor do they guard. And what would Iran or North Korea make of this deliberate intermixing of civil and military nuclear programmes by one of the nuclear weapons superpowers – one which leads the criticisms of them for allegedly doing this very thing today.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: