John Baylis introduces his new book, Wales and the Bomb: The Role of Welsh Scientists and Engineers in the British Nuclear Programme.
The history of the British nuclear weapons programme from the Second World War onwards is now well known. We also know quite a lot about some of the central figures, like William Penney, involved in the development of atomic and later thermonuclear weapons. What is much less well known is that a number of facilities in Wales played an important role in wartime experiments on atomic energy research and that Welsh scientists and engineers played a significant part in the post-war developments that led to Britain becoming a nuclear weapons state.
Britain was the first country to decide to develop atomic weapons during the war. Scientific breakthroughs in 1939 led to a report in 1940 which outlined how atomic energy might be used for military purposes. Fearful that Germany was working on similar lines, the Churchill government set up the highly secret ‘Tube Alloys’ programme to develop an atomic device if possible before the war ended. Central to this project was the need to extract uranium 235 from uranium ore through a gaseous diffusion process. Much of this early experimental work was undertaken by Britain’s top atomic energy scientists at the Rhydymwyn Valley Works, near Mold in Flintshire. A critical part of the process involved the development of a fine membrane through which uranium hexafluoride passed, producing enriched uranium 235. The membrane was made from sintered nickel powder which was produced by the Mond Nickel Company in Clydach, near Swansea, which was at the time the only place in the world that could produce the nickel for the membranes.
Much of the work on developing an atomic weapon subsequently passed to the United States, where staff from the Mond works joined the Manhattan Project. The first atomic test took place in New Mexico in July 1945, followed by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. After the war ended, the United States unilaterally ended its nuclear cooperation with Britain, and in 1947 the Attlee government decided that Britain needed its own nuclear weapons as the Cold War set in. William Penney was given the task of building a UK bomb, and a significant part of his team were scientists and engineers from Wales. Their story is an interesting one.
Many of these scientists came from humble backgrounds, especially from the mining community. Ieuan Maddock, a specialist in electronic instrumentation, David Lewis an expert on tritium, and later recruits Alun Price, also an expert on tritium and Malcolm Jones, who specialised in the electronic aspects of nuclear warheads, were all the sons of miners. Lewis Roberts, who went on to become the director of Harwell, was the son of a Presbyterian minister. Brian Flowers, who replaced the traitor Klaus Fuchs as head of Theoretical Physics at Harwell, was also the son of a minister. Percy White, a chemist at Aldermaston from Swansea, was the son of a tent-maker and seamstress.
Many of them went on to distinguished careers. Ieuan Maddock became Chief Scientist in the Department of Trade and Industry, and later Principal of St Edmund Hall at Oxford. Brian Flowers became Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, and was the author of the Royal Commission Flowers Report on nuclear energy and the environment. Flowers’s successor at Harwell, Walter Marshall from Cardiff, became chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board, and was made a life peer as Baron Marshall of Goring.
Whatever one’s views on the moral questions about nuclear weapons, there is no doubt that the contribution of Welsh scientists to atomic energy research, and to the bomb programme in particular, was significant. It is remarkable that so many Welshmen (and some Welsh women) were involved, and the story is well worth recording and is deserving of further research.
Emeritus Professor John Baylis retired as Pro Vice-Chancellor at Swansea University in 2008, where he was previously Chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations. He was formerly Professor of International Politics and Dean of Social Science at Aberystwyth University.