Bangs and Stinks

James Buchan

  • Test of Greatness: Britain’s Struggle for the Atom Bomb by Brian Cathcart
    Murray, 301 pp, £19.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 7195 5225 7

The story of how the secrets of explosive plutonium fission were spirited away from the United States to this country has if anything increased in interest in recent years. Alongside its narrative appeal – the improvisation and mathematics, the bureaucratic squabbles and triumphs, the precision engineering of high explosive – the scientific campaign that ended in the Hurricane test at the Monte Bello islands off Australia’s west coast on 3 October 1952 also dramatises the yearning and anxiety in British self-consciousness after the war. Soon after the test, the Daily Graphic apostrophised William Penney, the project’s leader: ‘Britain and the Commonwealth owe a debt – almost impossible to repay – to you ... the fact that you and your team have made it possible for Britain to make and store atom bombs has made the country a world power once again.’

The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 abolished at a stroke the privileges that Britain enjoyed as a victor of 1945 and that the Hurricane shot appeared to guarantee; and the breakdown of the post-war security system threatens an uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons. We all quite badly need to have an answer to the question: how easy is it to make and test a plutonium bomb without telling anybody? Meanwhile, the attempt in the late Eighties to privatise the nuclear power industries in England and Scotland revealed the immense economic cost of the particular nuclear technology which, in the headlong rush to Hurricane, Britain had adopted. And in Australia, Hurricane and the 11 other tests conducted by Britain on Australian soil are now raked over in the dim light of complex and resentful new attitudes to the mother country.

The story was told, at magisterial length, by Professor Margaret Gowing, and Lorna Arnold of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, in the 1974 official history, Independence and Deterrence: Britain and Atomic Energy 1945-1952. In 1984 and 1985, the Royal Commission on British Nuclear Tests in Australia, sitting in Australia and London, under the able, vain and quarrelsome ‘Diamond Jim’ McLelland, unearthed tons of documents from British archives and conducted two interviews with the bewildered Lord Penney. (The report and evidence of the Royal Commission are not in the British Library catalogue.) Amid the tumult over the Royal Commission’s hearings, Mrs Arnold brought out her A Very Special Relationship: British Atomic Weapon Trials in Australia (1987). She seems more or less to have supervised Brian Cathcart’s book, which has the great advantage of the Public Record Office documents (of which he makes good use) and many good old-fashioned interviews with the survivors, though not, alas, with Penney, who died in 1991. It is an excellent book, with a boyish zest for boffins and bangs and hairy bits of engineering, a sensitivity to social class and bureaucratic and service amour propre, and an awareness of the rush and eddy of history, like the winds that made a Z of the cloud over Monte Bello. We all know now that detonating atomic bombs in the atmosphere is a bad thing, but Cathcart does not judge his heroes by political criteria that have subsequently become established – unlike the Royal Commission report, which is full of crocodile tears for the Aborigines about whom, at the time, only Penney seems to have given a damn.

If there is nostalgia in Cathcart’s book, it is not for the British Empire but for the cramped backgrounds, high-powered grammar schools and industrial workbenches that produced men such as Penney and John Corner: at times, one feels transported to one of those Fifties films in which middle-aged young men in macs and hats and black spectacles are forever jumping into Daimlers and roaring down to Wallingford.

The target of the British bomb, as has long been known, was not the Soviet Union but the United States. Its purpose was to restore the political co-operation that had been all but buried with Roosevelt and the nuclear co-operation suspended by the McMahon Act in 1946. Once Attlee had decided Britain needed its own bomb – ‘with a bloody Union Jack flying on top of it,’ as Bevin exclaimed at the secret Cabinet committee that handled atomic issues – the question was merely how to knock off the Nagasaki weapon as quickly and cheaply as possible. As John Corner said later, ‘the atomic weapon was such and such and no change could be risked lest the weapon were then to fail.’

The rule for the non-American scientists at Los Alamos was that they might not take notes, but Penney was close to Oppenheimer – Cathcart has a lovely picture of him riding on Oppenheimer’s ranch in New Mexico in 1932 – and was trusted even by General Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, who admits in his account (Now It Can Be Told, 1963) that Penney was of the inner circle. By the time Penney took charge of the British project, he probably had a clear notion of the principles, components and testing of a plutonium bomb; but not how to produce plutonium in quantity or design and assemble it into a weapon. One man who had certainly taken notes in the US during the war was Klaus Fuchs. Cathcart rightly asks how far he advanced the British, as opposed to the Soviet programme; later, of course, his exposure and confession in an Abingdon pub in early 1950 confirmed all the worst fears in Congress and the Administration about British trustworthiness and any hopes of co-operation were dashed.

Cathcart tells us how Penney and his staff, by intuition, improvisation and quizzing American scientific visitors, filled the gaps in their understanding; how they battled up and down Whitehall not so much for money, which could be found, but for men; and how the device was made and assembled, which last inspires his most enthusiastic writing:

Sealing the box, he put his hands into the gloves and carefully opened the containers. The nickel-coating initiator, just the size of a grape, he placed in the dimple on the flat face of one of the golden hemispheres. With Moyce watching the neutron counter for any sign of imminent criticality, Rowlands then put the other hemisphere on top and fitted the gleaming ball into the gauntlet.

This is reassuring. Making and testing a plutonium bomb in the Forties and Fifties was a hard grind and the advances since then in electronics and computing power, and the black market in weapons-grade plutonium, may not have made it as easy now as many people, including Cathcart, fear. On the test itself, a combined operation of nightmarish difficulty at a site only marginally preferable to Piccadilly Circus, Cathcart actually outdoes his mistresses. And across it all strides the figure of Penney, the son of an Ordnance Corps sergeant-major and a department-store bookkeeper: Mrs Arnold’s ‘reluctant weaponeer’. In his strong intelligence and equable personality, he seems to have sensed that he had sacrificed something for his fame and success, something important; but this feeling is always engulfed in his boundless scientific curiosity. Here is Penney at Nagasaki, ten days after the bombing:

The observers’ attention gradually became focused on bent cylindrical flagpoles and other drag damage effects; dished or broken panels, one side exposed to the air pressure from the blast and the other side fully or almost protected; partially collapsed empty cans with little or no openings; and any other damage effects which might permit estimates of the blast to be made. Measurements were made on the spot and a variety of samples were collected.

There are a few gaps in Cathcart’s story. I would have liked an authoritative judgment on the fate of the Monte Bello black and white fairy wren. Also more on the role of the Australians, not least because Anglo-Australian relations are now in such dire repair. In a good discussion of why Britain decided against having the US test the device in Nevada, Cathcart misses the key point made by Lord Cherwell: what if the damn thing didn’t go off in front of the Americans? Australia it had to be, and from this and other accounts, it is clear the Australians really were treated with disgraceful arrogance and condescension. The RAAF, for instance, does not seem to have been told that it was dangerous to fly through the cloud. (I recommend Robert Milliken’s No Conceivable Injury: The Story of Britain and Australia’s Nuclear Cover-Up, 1986.)

The chief omission in the book concerns plutonium. Though we are told in great detail how the nuclear device was made and fired, we learn next to nothing about how the plutonium itself was refined. That may be for narrative reasons: while Penney bestrides the story like a colossus from Woolwich and Aldermaston, Christopher Hinton at Windscale must needs be a pygmy. But the decisions about the Windscale plant committed Britain to a nuclear technology which, though excellent for making Plutonium, was not so good at generating power; to the reprocessing of spent reactor fuel; and to the whole great Sellafield estate, including the Thorp plant and fifty tonnes of plutonium in store just waiting to be nicked. In idle moments, I try and calculate how much these fateful decisions have cost the country in wasted money and ability. I believe that the Magnox and AGR technologies, the reprocessing halls at Sellafield and the fast-breeder programme abandoned earlier this year, have contributed more to this country’s economic mediocrity since the war than any other industrial branch.

And did Hurricane work? The short answer, Cathcart states, is no: a month after the test, the US exploded a thermonuclear device at Eniwetok and Penney reluctantly had to go back to work, this time on a hydrogen bomb. A ‘megaton-range’ device was successfully tested at Christmas Island in May 1957, just before the moratorium came down on atmospheric tests. By then, the US was snooping on British shots on the Australian mainland. Eventually, Sputnik so put the wind up the Eisenhower Administration that it opened its research to the British; but I doubt it would have done so had this country not displayed an independent capability. In terms of bangs for the buck, Britain was surely right to throw all it had at an atomic device rather than, as some in Whitehall and the Services wanted, at advanced conventional weapons. We never managed a ballistic missile to carry the thing but it didn’t matter since we could have Polaris and Trident from the US off the peg. And it kept Penney and the others in this country. Whether it might have been wiser to forget nuclear bombs and concentrate on industrial reconstruction, as in Germany and Japan, or make our peace with history in 1945 rather than 1989, are questions Cathcart does not ask or answer, and who’s to blame him.