Harwell. The enigma revealed

Harwell. The enigma revealed 

Nick Hance 

Buckland, England: Enhance Publishing | 2006 | 336pp | ?20 (HB) | ISBN 00955305500 

Reviewed by Derry Jones

In the mid-20th century, the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) in Harwell, a village on the edge of the Berkshire Downs, symbolised the future of energy in the UK. Its founding director, Nobel prize-winner John Cockcroft, selected the site from several RAF stations (they had utilities, hangars and substantial accommodation and other buildings), partly because of its elevation and its access to London and to an ancient university. Another Harwell director, Robert Spence, was a prominent nuclear chemist, but staff also included two spies, Klaus Fuchs and Bruno Pontecorvo. 

In 35 clear episodic chapters, Nick Hance, whose Harwell career encompassed science and media relations, describes and illustrates (with 300 pictures) Harwell’s story from historic Ways and RAF Operational Training Unit aerodrome (from which gliders initiated the D-Day invasion) to 21st century science campus. 

The first reactor in Europe, Graphite Low Energy Experimental Pile (GLEEP) in Hangar 8 (all buildings were numbered, RAF-style), which went critical in 1947 (and lasted until 1990), was soon followed by British Experimental Pile O (BEPO), the prototype for Windscale. Visiting scientists used neutron beams from reactors DIDO and PLUTO and later from the ISIS Spallation Source at the adjacent Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory on the airfield site nearer Chilton, where the Diamond Synchrotron is now the most prominent structure. 

By the late 1960s, fusion research had gone to Culham and, with North Sea oil exploited in the 1970s, AERE’s remit had to broaden with non-nuclear entities such as the Energy Technology Support Unit. AEA Technology was launched in 1989 and floated in 1996 as a consultancy and services business. Staff numbers declined from 4500 to 2000 in a period of decommissioning, demolition, uncertainty and adjustment to a more business oriented culture than Cockcroft had envisioned. However, the revitalised Harwell campus now accommodates 100 energetic international companies and 4500 staff. 

Hance’s book is an enjoyable read, especially for the thousands of scientists who have worked at Harwell as staff or visitors.