No stranger to fall-out

March 13, 1998

Official nuclear historian Lorna Arnold tells Wendy Barnaby why a recent report about what to do with Britain's plutonium waste heralds another nuclear row

Another nuclear fracas is on the horizon, and Lorna Arnold, the UK's official nuclear historian, is contemplating it with interest. A recent Royal Society report on managing the vast store of plutonium produced by Britain's 35 nuclear reactors as they burn uranium fuel all but recommends that the nuclear industry should mix plutonium oxide with uranium oxide to make mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel to sell abroad.

Although the report does not recommend a preference for making fuel - listing several other options for managing plutonium as well - a member of the committee that produced the report told The THES last week that the listing of options was simply in order to "appear to be even-handed". But, he added: "You can read between the lines."

Anti-nuclear activists promise noisy opposition to any suggestion that plutonium, a highly efficient explosive much sought after by terrorists, should be used to make fuel. "The Royal Society should know better," says Shaun Burnie, nuclear campaigns director of Greenpeace International. "Anyone with a supply of fresh MOX fuel has access to nuclear weapons material. For the Royal Society to propose this ignores the real threat posed by so-called civil plutonium programmes - namely that nuclear weapons will proliferate."

To date, Britain's 12 nuclear power stations have discharged about ,000 tonnes of spent fuel, containing 53.5 tonnes of plutonium. Because of its extreme toxicity and long life span, disposing of it is very difficult. At present, British plutonium is removed from spent reactor fuel elements at the reprocessing plant at Sellafield and stored there.

After 30 years of unrestricted access to papers not in the public domain, Arnold understands more than most about the battles the nuclear industry has fought. "I'm all in favour of controversy," she says. "The one thing that is really most harmful is to try to hush anything up and not have a debate." And if the industry thought it would have nothing but plaudits from Arnold, it must have learned its mistake long ago. Small and bright-eyed she may be, but she is no poodle.

Windscale 1957: Anatomy of a Nuclear Accident, her book on the fire at the Windscale (now Sellafield) plant, contradicts the government white paper that followed the incident. That paper criticised some of the Windscale staff for their part in the events. Arnold, citing a range of deficiencies at the plant, concludes that the fire was "an accident waiting to happen", and calls for justice for the Windscale staff. "They acted with outstanding courage, resourcefulness and devotion to duty," she writes. "Yet their actions were publicly blamed, at the highest level, as contributing materially to the fire." "It always upsets me when people denigrate other people unfairly", she now says. "The Windscale thing really raised my ire. It was so weasly.

"Feeble. It was the only time I was lent on to leave something out. A pretty well-known man - I won't mention his name - wanted me to take out the bit about how it was unfair to the workers, to make it look as though it was the workers' fault." Setting the record straight is, she thinks, part of her job.

Not that everyone agrees with the record as she sees it. Her research on the UK atomic tests in Australia in the 1950s, which resulted in her book, A Very Special Relationship, gave her no reason to support the continuing claims of servicemen who were present at the tests that individuals' health suffered as a result of radiation exposure. On this, as on other issues, she believes her own picture is reliable. "As a contemporary historian in a controversial field you have to check everything against the documents all the time to make sure the facts are accurate. People's memories are shockingly fallible and a lot of people's experience was limited. Some people have an axe to grind. You've got to know your sources and where the bodies are buried."

Arnold made a late start on the nuclear industry's graveyards. She became a teacher and then a diplomat, before, in 1958, as the impecunious single parent of two small children, she was recruited by the UK Atomic Energy Authority. Now 82, she regrets her late entry into the field: "I've enjoyed it so much that sometimes I wish I'd got into it when I was in my twenties rather than in my fifties".

She agrees that the nuclear industry has been too secretive. "In the early days the nuclear programme was so heavily tied up with the military side, and especially after the nuclear spies - Klaus Fuchs, Bruno Pontecorvo and the others who supplied the Soviet Union with information about the West's nuclear research - there was a paranoid fear of letting out information", she explains. "It was so much safer to make everything secret. In retrospect, it was understandable but overdone. It became a culture and difficult to change." She sees too much secrecy as part of the industry's periodic ineptitude at public relations. British Nuclear Fuel's recent television advertising campaign ("Sellafield - where science never sleeps") appalled her: "It was awful. It made me say, 'What are they up to?' I didn't trust it. It was too glossy."

Good PR, according to Arnold, depends not on sophisticated smoothness but on daily cooperation between people in the industry and the local community. She cites Windscale as an example. "The works general manager at Windscale was a Welsh chemist named Gethin Davey. He was well known locally and long before the accident used to go round talking to local meetings explaining what was going on at Windscale. Therefore when the accident took place and he and some of his senior staff went round talking to meetings of local miners, farmers and so on, they said, 'Oh well, Mr Davey told us all about it.' Windscale's chief medical officer at the time,Andrew McLean, told me that anxiety and alarm about the accident varied inversely as the square of the distance from London."

The Windscale accident certainly caused acute embarrassment at 10 Downing Street. The prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was very worried about how the Americans might react to the fire. He, like other postwar leaders, had been trying to re-establish Britain's wartime atomic partnership with the US, which the Americans had ended in 1946. At the time of the fire he was on the brink of renewing it, and he was afraid the accident would give ammunition to those Americans who were still opposing cooperation. Sir William Penney (later Lord Penney), leader of the Weapons Group, wrote the first report on the accident, and Arnold recalls seeing Macmillan's copy of it on file at No 10. "It had arrived at 5pm one evening and Macmillan's private secretary had read it quickly. He'd put a note on it for the PM, saying it was technical and the PM wouldn't want to read it, and summarising it in a few points. The secretary added that the PM had a meeting at 10am the next day to discuss it. There were so many things coming across the PM's desk - I could imagine that he might not have read Penney's report. But when I looked at his copy I saw he had annotated every page in red. He had obviously read it thoroughly. He was so worried about how the US would react."

Her next book is at an advanced stage of preparation. The Third Power is a history of Britain's H-bomb. It covers the period after the war until 1958, during which time the UK weapons programme developed in isolation from the American one. It was largely the British achievement of an effective H-bomb design during that time that convinced the US that the British would again be valuable partners in nuclear weapons development. In 1958 the two countries struck the Anglo-US agreement on nuclear weapons collaboration, which is still in force today. Arnold does not want to tell me much more about the book, but promises it will put the record straight once more.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments