Friday, August 19, 2011

"Ban the Bomb" is not "Anti-Nuclear"

My study of the British Windscape Reactor fire has left me feeling some sympathy for the early British "Ban the Bomb Campaign." The motives for the British nuclear weapons program seem less than rational to me. Strictly speaking after the advent of NATO, the UK was under the American Nuclear Umbrella. A Soviet nuclear attack on the UK, would have received an American nuclear response. Thus a British nuclear force gave the UK no added nuclear deterrent, nor was one needed.

The British nuclear arm was was thus an expensive luxury. The primary function of the British nuclear weapons program was the maintenance of national prestige, a keeping up with the nuclear Jones. By the end of World War II the United Kingdom was broke. The national prevention to be a world power was based on an Empire it could not hold on too, or even justify. The British infrastructure was in desperate need of modernization, and it was folly to put money for modernization into a nuclear weapons program.

Britain had designed medium range and size bombers to deliver its nuclear weapons, but by the time of the Windscape fire the so called V-Bombers were nearing obsolescence. The U-2 incident demonstrated that high flying bombers were vulnerable to anti0aircraft missiles. The new bomber doctrine called for bombers to fly at very low levels. The airframes of British bombers could not withstand the riggers of low level flying, and the British bombers quickly became too dangerous to fly as bombers. Thus by the end of the 1950's the British lacked an effective nuclear delivery system, and ended up borrowing one, the Polaris missile, from the United States,

To make matters worse the British nuclear program, during most of the 1950's relied on two obsolete reactors, that had safety flaws in their design. British politicians, motivated by a desire to maintain British international national power, demanded that the Windscape reactors be pushed beyond the limits of safety. The British scientific community did not stand up to the politicians over nuclear safety.

Under such circumstances the original British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament made considerable sense for the UK. The campaign backers arguably were more grounded in reality than the British politicians with their dreams of national glory. However, the notion that total global nuclear disarmament would lead to a safer world was nonsense, and a case could be made that the mutually assured distraction of the United States and the Soviet Union prevented them from going to war in 1961, during the Cuban Missile crisis.

Considering the close ties between the UK civilian nuclear power program, and the British production of plutonium for military purposes, it is perhaps surprising that he early Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament did not focuse more attention on power producing reactors. The Calder Hall and Chapelcross Magnox power stations were intended to produce both electricity and plutonium Those purposes were not entirely consistent, and the compromises they demanded came at considerable costs.

It should be explained why the British government should undertake the building of the Magnox power stations, which a 1960's british government White Paper acknowledged produced power that was considerably more expensive than that which could be produced by burning coal. But nuclear power stations had what was for the British Government one huge economic advantage, they could not be shut down by coal miners' union strikes. British coal fired power plants were vulnerable to coal mine strikes during the 1950's. The British government own the mines, thus the construction of civilian power reactors was directly related to keeping the wages of British coal miners and the price of coal generated electricity low.

The UK government, still intent on developing nuclear weapons, decided it could justify the high cost of nuclear produced electricity, by adding the benefit of plutonium production for weapons use to the reactors use. But plutonium production put significant restraints on reactor operations. In practice in order to produce Plutonium for weapons, the Magnox reactors needed to be shutdown for refueling at least twice a year. Frequent refueling added to Magnox reactor generating costs. Critics of nuclear power often claim that power reactors are good sources of plutonium for weapons, but had the British been able to use fuel grade plutonium from the Magnox reactors they would have done so. Both the British and Americans used Calder Hall produced fuel grade plutonium in weapons tests, and all tests proved unsatisfactory. By the mid-1960's the British government decided that it had produced enough weapons grade plutonium. Indeed the UK had produced enough plutonium to make far more nuclear weapons than the delivery systems the British defense establishment possessed or contemplated could deliver. At that point it was decided to end production of plutonium for weapons purposes and focus future Magnox operations on civilian electrical production.

The original British "Ban the Bomb" campaigners certainly had reasons for opposing the Magnox reactors, but they largely ignored them. One of the major pillars of the anti-nuclear movement is the often repeated assertion that building civilian power reactors increases the likelihood of nuclear proliferation. Yet the British Magnox reactors were the only instance in which plutonium from civilian reactors was used for military purposes. But the British Magnox reactors were the product of an already existing nuclear weapons program that had existed for well over 15 years prior to the Magnox reactors coming online. The British had produced and tested nuclear weapons several years before the first Magnox reactor went in to operation. Thus he early British Magnox power reactors may have been the created to serve the British nuclear weapons program, but played no role in the British acquisition of nuclear bomb technology.


Huw Lynes said...

Charles, I think your spell-checker may be getting the better of you: it's Windscale not Windscape..

David Cotton said...

Unfortunately "The airframes of British bombers could not withstand the riggers [sic] of low level flying, and the British bombers quickly became too dangerous to fly as bombers." is not true.

The Valiant was withdrawn early due to fatigue problems exacerbated by low-level flying, but the Victor and Vulcan fitted well into their new roles. Indeed, the Vulcans were nuclear-capable for low-level flying well into the 1980s.


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