The Role of Swansea in the UK Nuclear Programme

Fig. 3: Swansea Physicists, late 1950s.

Swansea Physicists outside the department in the late 1950s. Professor G.P. Thomson (visiting Nobel Laureate) is seated, second from the left, and on his left is professor Frank Llewellyn  Jones. Professor (then Dr.) Colyn Grey Morgan is standing behind, and slightly to the left of Thomson.

by John Baylis and Mike Charlton


Atomic energy and nuclear weapons pose highly difficult moral problems. They also involve very complex scientific and engineering challenges. The purpose of this article is not to debate the ethical issues involved in such developments (important though these are)[1] but rather, on the centenary of Swansea University, to look back at the role played by Swansea scientists and engineers in the evolution of the British nuclear programme from the Second World War to the present day. It is a fascinating story, in which some of Swansea’s leading scientists and engineers played a particularly significant role; some of their key advances were at the cutting edge of scientific development during the twentieth century. For some this may be a surprise given that anti-establishment feelings and pacifism have traditionally been significant forces in Welsh non-conformity and radicalism in general. Swansea University, however, had its roots in a very strong scientific and engineering tradition from the Mechanics Institution in the late nineteenth century and the Swansea Technical College in the early part of the twentieth century, through to the founding of the University in 1920. Following this tradition, many of its graduates and staff, as well as other scientists born or brought up in Swansea, have played leading roles in many major scientific projects over the past one hundred years. The development of nuclear weapons was one of them.

Background: The Wartime Period

Britain was the first state that decided it was necessary to develop an atomic weapons capability. In September 1939, two days before war broke out, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and an American colleague, John A. Wheeler, published a paper[2] outlining the theory of uranium fission, which highlighted the importance of the fissile isotope uranium-235, which would have to be separated from uranium-238. They did not believe, however, that such separation would be possible. In March 1940, two physicists working at the University of Birmingham, Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch, wrote a Memorandum not only showing that a lump of uranium-235 of just 5 kg would produce the immensely large reaction needed for an atomic explosion, but also suggesting an industrial method of separating uranium-235, based upon a thermal diffusion method[3].

Following on from the Frisch-Peierls Memorandum, the British wartime government set up the MAUD Committee, consisting of a number of eminent scientists, to study the possibility of developing a nuclear weapon[4]. In July 1941, the Committee completed its report with three main recommendations. Firstly, it argued that it was possible to construct a uranium super bomb that was “likely to lead to decisive results in the war[5].” Secondly, it recommended that the work on such a bomb should be continued as the “highest priority and on the increasing scale necessary to obtain the weapon in the shortest possible time.” And thirdly, that “the present collaboration with America should be continued and extended especially in the region of experimental work.” The high priority that needed to be given to the project, the report argued, was due to the fact that Germany was also working on uranium research and “the lines on which we are now working are such as would be likely to suggest themselves to any capable physicist[6].”

The Committee accepted that it was possible that the bomb might not be produced by the time the war ended but the members believed that the prodigious explosive power of such weapons was likely to be of such military significance in the future that every effort should be made to develop them as soon as possible. The Report argued that:

Even if the war should end before the bombs are ready, the effort would not be wasted, except in the unlikely event of complete disarmament, since no nation would care to risk being caught without a weapon of such decisive possibilities[7].

Eddie Bowen and the Tizard Mission

A copy of the Report was taken to the United States in the summer of 1941 with the US still neutral and where groups of scientists were, in a rather unfocused manner, working on the possibilities of the bomb. It was only after receiving the MAUD Report that the US took the project more seriously, and even before Pearl Harbour, the Manhattan Project was established[8]. By this time Britain had set up an organization with the code name ‘Tube Alloys’ with the aim of establishing the research and industrial programme necessary to develop atomic weapons[9].

One Welshman, Edward George (‘Taffy’) Bowen (see Fig. 1), played a key role in passing on the information contained in the Frisch-Peierls Memorandum to the United States, and thereby establishing the close Anglo-American nuclear collaboration that was to follow. Bowen was the son of a sheet metal worker from Cockett, near Swansea. He joined Swansea University as a brilliant scholar at the very young age of 16 and graduated with a first class honours degree in Physics in 1930. He had a Masters degree at the age of 19 and completed his Ph.D. at King’s College, London in 1934 on aspects of atmospheric physics. His research, much of which took place at the Radio Research Station at Slough, attracted the attention of R.A. Watson-Watt and he became part of his team at Orfordness working on experimental ground radar. Whilst there he made major contributions to the development of aircraft radar, establishing himself by the outbreak of the war as one of the leading British scientists in this area. In August 1940 he was chosen to be part of a mission led by Sir Henry Tizard (and including Professor Cockcroft) to visit the United States to pass on Britain’s most important military secrets, including an example of a cavity magnetron and details of Britain’s latest uranium research[10]. Bowen was responsible for carrying the metal deed box (known as ‘Tizard’s Briefcase’) containing all the technological secrets. When he arrived at Euston station he handed it to a porter, and as he gathered up his belongings he watched the porter disappear into the crowd in search of the boat train to Liverpool. Fortunately, he was eventually re-united with the box and, following the sea voyage with his colleagues, delivered it to the United States.

In discussions with American scientists, Tizard and Cockcroft discovered that although similar studies were being undertaken in the US (especially by Enrico Fermi at Columbia University) the research was several months behind that conducted in Britain. The findings of the MAUD Reports were also passed on to the US later in 1941. (Bowen’s work played a major part in the Battle of the Atlantic for which he was awarded the OBE in 1941 and the US Medal of Freedom in 1947. He went on to have a very distinguished scientific career in the field of Radiophysics in Australia after the war, and he was the principal driver behind the Parkes Radio Telescope, which has been in operation since 1961. He was awarded a CBE in 1962, for his contributions to the development of science in Australia, and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1975.[11])

Apart from establishing a practical way forward in the development of atomic energy, the Frisch-Peierls Memorandum and the MAUD Reports that followed it also helped to accelerate the American atomic energy programme, at a time that it lacked urgency. It was the Tizard Mission, which included Eddie Bowen, a Swansea physicist, that played an important role in convincing the Roosevelt government that an atomic bomb was possible. This led to a major scientific and industrial programme in the form of the Manhattan Project, which effectively replaced the Tube Alloy programme in the UK and produced the first atomic bomb test at Alamogordo, New Mexico on the 16 July 1945.

The Post-War Period

‘People sometimes noted the especially large number of Welshmen in the team!’[12]

The development of Britain's atomic and thermonuclear weapons in the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, was a major scientific and engineering achievement. With very little external help, and with limited resources, British scientists and engineers solved some of the most difficult scientific and engineering problems of the day. In the United States, the scientists involved in the American nuclear programme became household names (especially Oppenheimer, Teller and Kistiakowsky). In Britain, apart from William Penney and William Cook, few of those involved in Britain's nuclear programme are well known to the public. Even less well known is the fact that significant numbers of those involved initially in nuclear weapons research at Fort Halstead and then at Aldermaston were from Wales. Indeed, according to one source, there were so many Welshmen at Aldermaston that they 'could turn out a full cricket side of native Glamorganshire men'[13]! Of these 'taffy's men', as they were called, Swansea scientists played important roles during the war and in the twenty one Atomic and H-Bomb tests that took place between 1952 and 1958. Some contributed to experimental scientific research at Harwell and others made a more direct contribution to the development of atomic and thermonuclear weapons at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston.

Harwell's Welshmen

Lewis Edward John Roberts

Lewis Roberts was the son of a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Wales. He was born in Cardiff but brought up in Swansea, attending Swansea Grammar School before studying Chemistry at Jesus College, Oxford. Lewis Roberts has been described a ‘one of the pioneers of the UK nuclear programme’. After surviving a direct hit on his home in Swansea from a German bomb in September 1940 he completed his degree in Oxford in 1943 and registered as a postgraduate student. His research project on actinide chemistry was highly relevant to the early work on uranium isotope separation being carried out by Professor Simon in the Clarendon Laboratory[14]. As a result he moved from Jesus College to the Clarendon Laboratory and was supervised initially by Professor Simon and later Professor Nicholas Kurti. Despite his young age (he was 21 in 1943), it is clear that Roberts made an important contribution to the work being done at the Clarendon Laboratory on a method to separate uranium-235 from uranium-238. At the time the only method considered feasible was multiple filtration of the volatile gaseous compound uranium hexafluoride (UF6) through a porous metal membrane through which the lighter isotope diffused a little faster than the heavier one. A key issue was the high reactivity of UF6, resulting in corrosion and plugging of the pores in the membranes. Roberts’s research was concerned with the microstructure and chemical reactivity of metal and composite membranes that limited the effects of corrosion and enabled isotope separation. This work on actinide isotope separation became of increasing importance to the British bomb project, particularly as restrictions were placed on access to the US work in this area after the war. For Roberts, this early work marked the start of a distinguished research career in actinide chemistry[15].

After the war Roberts moved to Chalk River in Ontario to continue his research on the chemistry of isotope separation, working with John Cockcroft and Bob Spence, both of whom were to become Directors of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell[16]. While he was at Chalk River he was introduced to plutonium chemistry and achieved the first separation outside the US of a minute quantity (25 mg) of a pure plutonium compound extracted from a fuel rod irradiated in an experimental pile assembly. At the time there was an accidental spill in his laboratory of the solution containing all of the separated plutonium. Armed with a sharp knife, rubber gloves and a bottle of nitric acid, he cut the linoleum containing the spill, dissolved it in acid and eventually recovered almost all the plutonium!

Roberts himself joined the staff at Harwell in 1947 as a Scientific Officer in the Chemistry Division, just at the time the decision was being made by the Attlee Government to develop an independent nuclear deterrent. The early work at Harwell in 1947 and 1948, involved building two graphite-moderated reactors, GLEEP (the Graphite Low Energy Experimental Pile), and BEPO (the British Experimental Pile). Roberts’ first task on joining Harwell was to undertake a detailed study of the microstructure and chemical reactivity of graphite by examining the pore structure of synthetic graphite. By using liquid density measurements he was able to show that ‘a significant fraction of the pores were closed to external liquid and gaseous media’. This work made a significant contribution to the UK graphite reactor programme.

Given the central importance of actinide oxides (particularly those of uranium, UO2, and plutonium, PuO2) as fuel materials for fission reactors, Roberts’ research quickly established his reputation as a leading scientist in this field. He was in great demand at international conferences and delivered papers at the UN International Conference at Geneva on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy and at the International Atomic Energy Agency in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He later went on to have a successful career in senior management, firstly as Assistant Director and then as Deputy Director at a time when Harwell’s future was being questioned[17]. Roberts very successfully ran the non-nuclear diversification programme and helped to move the organisation in a more commercial direction. In 1975 he became Director of Harwell, serving with ‘great distinction’ until 1986 (the second longest serving Director after Sir John Cockcroft). During this period he adopted the lead responsibility for the difficult area of radioactive waste management, setting up NIREX (the Nuclear Industry Radioactive Waste Executive), as well as continuing with the programme of commercialisation (through the Trading Fund).

Following his retirement in 1986, his long experience with nuclear energy issues led to his appointment to the new Wolfson Chair of Environmental Risk Assessment at the University of East Anglia (UEA). In this new role he set up the Environmental Risk Assessment Unit (ERAU) which became the focus for coordinating related interests across the School of Environmental Science and other research centres, including the Climate Change Unit. The ERAU also became a collaborating centre of the World Health Organisation. After his retirement from UEA in 1990 he continued to publish on nuclear energy and environmental matters and played a role as a Specialist Adviser to the Secretary of State for Wales (on environmental contamination matters) and he was a Specialist Advisor to the House of Commons Defence Committee (on matters such as the decommissioning of nuclear submarines, radiation protection for civilians and the nuclear testing programme in the 1950s). Roberts, described as ‘a rather shy and reserved man with a strong sense of public responsibility’, died at the age of 90 in April 2012[18].

J.B. Lewis

John Lewis was a contemporary of Lewis Roberts at Swansea Grammar School who went on to study at Swansea University. He was inspired by a talk given at the University after the end of the Second World War by Professor James Chadwick. Professor Chadwick had discovered the neutron in 1932 for which he had been awarded the Nobel Prize. He had been a member of the MAUD Committee in the early 1940s and subsequently leader of the British Mission at Los Alamos. While he was at University a mobile exhibition, ‘The Atomic Train’, visited Swansea. During the visit a 3-lecture seminar was held at the University led by Lewis Roberts, together with another physicist and a radiologist. The seminars focused on the chemistry, physics and radiation effects of atomic weapons.

After graduating John Lewis joined the staff at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell where he met up once again with Lewis Roberts, who went on to become one of its Directors. His work involved research and development on the treatment and future disposal of radioactive wastes. He noted in a memoir sent to one of the authors that he was involved in a serious dispute with staff at Sellafield about the difficult problem associated with the disposal of nuclear waste. ‘Much of our work’, he wrote, ‘was, unfortunately, disregarded by Sellafield. For example high-level radioactive wastes were stored as liquid in water-cooled double walled shielded tanks. No effort was made to solidify the dangerous wastes but we … developed a process to convert these into an extremely stable radiation and water resistant glass…. Sellafield were not interested.’ Later, however, the Health and Safety Authority told Sellafield that if they didn’t solidify the wastes they would be closed down. This led them to go to France ‘cap in hand’ to find a process similar to the one recommended by Harwell. Lewis reports that when Mrs Thatcher found out about this during a visit to Harwell she was very annoyed[19].

Brian Flowers

Brian Flowers was born in Blackburn but went to Bishop Gore Grammar School in Swansea. He was also the son of a Minister. He was ‘a brilliant scholar’ at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he obtained an MA in Physics. Like Roberts, Brian Flowers joined the Anglo-Canadian Atomic Energy Project at Chalk River in 1944 at the age of just twenty. He stayed until 1946 when he was recruited by John Chadwick to AERE Harwell. He continued his research on nuclear physics until 1950 when he joined the Department of Mathematical Physics at Birmingham University to do doctoral research under Professor Rudolf Peierls. After completing his DSc in 1952 (in just two years) he returned to Harwell at the age of 28 to take over as Head of the Theoretical Physics Division following the arrest of Klaus Fuchs (who had been a key member of the Manhattan Project, had worked closely with Professor Peierls, and was Head of Theoretical Physics at Harwell) on charges of spying for the Soviet Union.

During the period Flowers was at Harwell, Britain tested both atomic weapons and thermonuclear weapons, and developed a series of nuclear facilities to produce the materials for the weapons and civil nuclear programmes (including the GLEEP, BEPO and ZEPHYR atomic piles). His research focused on quantum mechanics, the fundamental theory of atomic systems, focusing on the structure of the nucleus and nuclear reactions. These were areas in which he quickly established an international reputation. In 1958 he left Harwell to take up an academic career, firstly as Professor of Theoretical Physics at Manchester and later Rector of Imperial College of Science and Technology and from 1985 to 1990 as Vice Chancellor of the University of London. He chaired the Science Research Council between 1967 and 1973 and the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals between 1983 and 1985. He also produced the Flowers Report on nuclear energy and the environment for the Royal Commission in 1976 which had a significant impact on the future development of the UK civil nuclear programme. He was knighted in 1969 and became Baron Flowers of Queensway in 1979. He was a particularly talented musician, playing both the piano and cello, and a keen angler. He died in 2010.

The Welsh Contingent at Fort Halstead and Aldermaston

In developing the bomb, Penney’s team consisted of teams of metallurgists, physicists and chemists. Welsh scientists and engineers played an important role in all three of these teams.

The Metallurgists

Graham Hopkin

Graham Hopkin was also from Swansea. He trained as a metallurgist, graduating from Cardiff University. 'Hoppy' as he was known, was ‘a genial modest Welshman, with an engaging and out-going personality’ who joined the Armaments Research Department at Woolwich in 1930 at the age of twenty one. He was recruited by Penney to be a part of the multidisciplinary team to work on the atomic bomb in 1947. His job was to oversee the production of the inner components of the bomb. On joining the team he was immediately faced with an entirely new range of metallurgical problems and materials, beginning with the largely unknown plutonium and going on to many more exotic and equally unpleasant substances[20].

Hopkins led the metallurgy team at Aldermaston, initially with responsibility for developing the plutonium core of the bomb, made up of two separate spheres. He and his team had to work at the forefront of what was known at the time, not only about plutonium and uranium, but also other highly dangerous materials such as polonium, beryllium and lithium deuteride. Polonium and beryllium were used to form the ‘initiator’, or ‘Urchin’, which sat at the core of the bomb assembly, designed to start the chain reaction of the fissile material. Brian Cathcart has described the role of the ‘Urchin’ in the following terms: ‘a tiny quantity of polonium, a metal so radioactive that it glows blue in the dark, is wrapped in the stable element beryllium... at the moment of detonation, when the convergent waves crush the core, the two metals in the ‘Urchin’ mix. Polonium emits a constant spray of alpha particles, and when these strike beryllium they shatter the beryllium nuclei, releasing a further spray, this time of neutrons. When these neutrons burst into the plutonium they ignite the fission chain reaction. The trick of the initiator, then, is to provide a barrier between the two metals which separates them until the required moment, but when disrupted, unleashes the shower of neutrons[21].

Margaret Gowing, the official historian of the British atomic energy programme, has argued that there were two special difficulties in the plutonium work that Hopkins and his staff had to deal with prior to the first British test in 1952. The first ‘was to safeguard the workers from the great hazards of the material. Work on it was impossible without the highly protected hot laboratories, but even there, handling times had to be kept very short because of the radiation danger.’ The second danger ‘was the possibility of reaching a supercritical mass in the experimental and development work. The only available nuclear constants for plutonium were those brought back from Los Alamos; they were so simple that they were not universally valid, and so it was uncertain whether they could be trusted when the system was moderated by the hydrogen and/or carbon contained in the conventional explosives which surrounded the plutonium in the bomb.’ When the first plutonium casting was made at Aldermaston by Hopkins and his team shortly prior to the test in the middle of the night, they had quite a scare. As ‘the metal was being melted in an argon atmosphere in a cerium sulphide crucible a ghostly blue flame appeared.’ This led the team to fear that the criticality calculations were incorrect. This led one member of the team to say: ‘Well boys, it’s too late to run!’ In fact the flame was caused by a chemical reaction due to an impurity and they were able to continue with their work[22].

Hopkin’s work was of crucial importance, not only in the 1952 'Hurricane' Test but also in the subsequent tests from 1953 to 1958, which led to the development and deployment of British atomic weapons, and boosted fission megaton weapons and thermonuclear weapons. As Chief of Materials he was responsible for building up the British stockpile of nuclear weapons in the 1950s. He also worked very closely with the American scientists and played an important part in helping to re-open nuclear collaboration with the US after the McMahon Act was finally repealed with the Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) in 1958[23]. This was described by the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, as ‘the Great Prize’. In the meetings following the MDA, US and British Scientists, including Hopkin, worked closely together exchanging a wide range of highly secret information about each other’s nuclear programmes. Hopkin was part of the team that met their American counterparts at Aldermaston and went on trips to the Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia Laboratories between December 1958 and February 1959. These visits laid the foundations for the Joint Working Groups (JOWOGs) of scientists from which the British nuclear programme benefitted enormously. The mutual respect between the scientists involved was of crucial importance in the ‘special nuclear partnership’ that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s and which lasts down to the present day. Hopkin and his staff have been described as being among ‘the heroes of the British H-Bomb story[24] '. He became Deputy Director of Aldermaston in 1965 and was appointed CBE in 1967 for his ‘outstanding contribution to scientific research and development.’ He was a keen golfer, squash player and fisherman. He retired in 1973.

Geoffrey Ellis

Geoffrey Ellis was born in Ammanford and graduated from Swansea University. Like Hopkin, Ellis did important work in metallurgy developing the intricate techniques required to prepare and machine beryllium, a highly dangerous light metal used in the initiator of the bomb, to the required shape. The dust from beryllium can cause a lung disease very similar to pneumoconiosis. Very little was known in Britain about beryllium at the time. Fortunately, it could be purchased from the United States without breaching the stringent terms of the McMahon Act. Ellis was highly respected by other members of the metallurgy team and later became involved in many of the post-MDA JOWOGS set up with the United States. He went on to become Head of Metallurgy at Aldermaston in the 1970s and 1980s and played a central role in the production of nuclear warheads during the Polaris Improvement Programme. It is also said that he was known at Aldermaston as being a very good squash player[25].

The Physicists

Ieuan Maddock (‘The Count of Monte Bello’)

Maddock (see Fig. 2) was a miner's son from Gorseinon who attended Gowerton County Grammar School. He left school believing he was destined to become a carpenter but he went to Swansea University where he obtained a first class degree in Physics, before going on to Ph.D. research on optical measurement. Despite the pioneering work of both Roberts and Flowers at Harwell, Maddock had perhaps a more central role in the atomic bomb programme. He was ‘a small, intense man with a balding pate and a moustache who had a native genius for electronic instrumentation.’ He is said to have made an 'outstanding contribution' to the bomb programme with his work on the design and development of electronic instrumentation and telemetry. William (later Lord) Penney had been given the task of building the British bomb in 1947 and he recruited Maddock, who was barely thirty years old, to his High Explosives Research (HER) team at Fort Halstead in Kent (prior to the development of Aldermaston in the early 1950s)[26].

Penney had been part of the wartime Manhattan Project and had flown in the observer plane in the Nagasaki attack (with another member of the British team, Group Captain Cheshire, V.C.). He had also been present at the post-war US Bikini tests. He knew that critical requirements of the British programme would be ‘to measure the implosion time of the bomb, to monitor the firing circuit performance and to measure the multiplication rate of the gamma output.’ In addition, it would be necessary ‘to ensure accurate timing and recording of the actual firing, to visually record events with high-speed cameras and to monitor the behaviour of all associated equipment, including such items as control and safety clocks, batteries and generators, etc[27]. Penney recognised Maddock’s ‘lively imagination and quick mind’ and put him in charge of the Telemetry and Communications Division, developing the wide range of complex instrumentation needed to meet these exacting requirements. In particular, he designed and developed oscilloscopes which were at the cutting edge of what was available at the time. At the critical ‘Hurricane’ test in October 1952, ‘the busiest team was the telemetry and communications group, responsible for the electronic firing system and for the network of communications and controls’ linking the bomb and all the many field sites[28]. Maddock was the inspiring leader of the team that provided the key measurements which were an essential part of the work, not only for 'Hurricane', but also later tests (including the ‘Totem’, ‘Mosaic’ and ‘Buffalo’ series). He was also put in charge of the countdown to the detonation, earning him the nickname 'The Count of Monte Bello'! Over a ten year period he has been described as a key ‘lynchpin in British atomic weapons development[29]’. He was awarded an OBE in 1953 for his work on the early atomic bomb tests.

Maddock later went on to do important work in the field of seismology that made a significant contribution to the Partial Test Ban Agreement between Britain, the United Sates and the Soviet Union in 1963. This was the agreement that banned nuclear testing in the atmosphere. He went on to work in the Ministry of Technology in 1965, and later became the Chief Scientist in the Department of Trade and Industry before becoming Principal of St Edmund Hall at Oxford University. He was appointed Fellow of the Royal Society in 1967, CB in 1968 and was knighted in 1975.

Reg Owen

Owen was another physicist who contributed to the early atomic bomb programme. He was born in Swansea and went to University in Aberystwyth. In 1937 he joined the Ministry of Supply and worked at Foulness as a Range Safety Officer. He went on to work in the Research Department of the War Office at the Woolwich Arsenal and from there to HER and later Aldermaston. He was very keen on rugby and fast motorcycles.

Bill Rees

Rees worked on explosives in the war in Swansea University as part of an evacuated group from the Woolwich Research Department. He went on after the war to do explosives research at Fort Halstead as part of the team that did the early work on the bomb project.

The Chemists

Percy White

Percy White was the son of a tent-maker and seamstress. Born in London, but raised in Swansea, he received a scholarship to his local university and graduated with a first-class honours in Chemistry at the age of 19. He then received a further scholarship and went to University College, London where he gained a Diploma in chemical engineering. He worked in the metals industry in the 1930s and went on to design power station equipment. With the outbreak of the War he joined the Ministry of Supply as a government scientist, initially working on the antidotes to chemical warfare agents. He later worked for the Royal Ordnance Factories, where he made an important contribution to the war effort by developing a new method of filling shells and bombs with high explosive. After the War he worked at Waltham Abbey in high explosive research before joining the staff at Porton Down (in the Microbiological Research Department. He then moved on to the Woolwich Arsenal, part of the Armament Research Department, headed by William Penney. Penney recruited White to the super-secret HER group in 1949 as part of an initial team of 37 charged with developing Britain’s atomic bomb.

When the HER group moved to Aldermaston in 1950, White was the first scientist on the site. His initial job was to research, design and commission a radioactive liquid treatment plant to produce some of the exotic materials required for the bomb project. Lorna Arnold has argued that White ‘played a key role in developing Britain’s first atomic bomb’ and subsequently ‘contributed even more significantly to the development of British thermonuclear weapons[30]’. In the early 1950s he worked in the Materials Division under Graham Hopkin before being appointed to the post of Superintendent Chemical Engineering later that decade. He subsequently became Senior Superintendent Chemical Technology. Following the Grapple tests in 1957/8 and the MDA with the United States, White, like Hopkin, was heavily involved in the technical collaboration with American scientists which was of crucial importance in laying the foundations of the Anglo-American nuclear relationship.

Later in the 1960s he led a team of chemists, metallurgists and engineers doing research on the “fast-reactor” at Dounreay in Caithness which tested nuclear materials and contributed power to the National Grid. William Penney described him as ‘a highly talented engineer who was energetic and self-confident, with an enquiring mind and the ability to express himself with extraordinary clarity[31].’ After his retirement White worked as a consultant to the UK Atomic Energy Authority and to the Department of Health, making important contributions to hospital design. He was also a talented artist enameller contributing to annual exhibitions in London and holding a one-man exhibition at the Winchester City Art Gallery. He was awarded the OBE in 1966 and he died in 2013, aged 96.

John Meurig Thomas

Not all Welsh scientists who joined the staff at Aldermaston were happy there. John Meurig Thomas was born in 1932 in the village of Ponthenri in the Gwendraeth valley, Carmarthenshire. His father and one brother were miners. He went to Llechfedach Primary School and Gwendraeth Valley Grammar School before studying Chemistry at Swansea University. He graduated with a First in 1954 and obtained his Ph.D. (which was completed at Queen Mary College, London) in October 1957. He then joined the staff at Aldermaston as part of the Chemistry team. He later described this decision as a ‘stupid mistake’. He was under the impression that he ‘would be trained to pursue studies in electron diffraction’ but on arriving at Aldermaston he was given ‘a dismal task involving electrodepositing thin films of metal on uranium’[32]. In an interview in 2007 he told Alan Macfarlane that he had been struck by the idea that ‘the equipment side of Aldermaston was so good that I would enjoy myself there’. However, even after a few weeks he realized that ‘this was the wrong place to be.’ He said he was ‘ambivalent at best about atomic weapons and didn’t want to be there[33].

It was, however, at Aldermaston that he discovered dislocation theory which was of critical importance to his later research in solid-state chemistry. After leaving Aldermaston he was appointed to a post in Bangor University before taking up the Chair in Chemistry at Aberystwyth in 1969. In 1977 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and was appointed to the Chair of Physical Chemistry at Cambridge. In 1986 he became the Director of the Royal Institution and, after being knighted in 1991, he became Master of Peterhouse College in Cambridge from 1993 to 2002. His work on heterogeneous catalysis made him one of the most distinguished scientists of his day.

Other Welsh Contributions to the Early Nuclear Programme

Important work on the physical properties of liquids was also undertaken at Aldermaston by an English academic, Neville Temperley in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Temperley went on to become an ‘Honorary Welshman’ through his work as Professor of Applied Mathematics at Swansea University from 1965 to 1982.

Significantly, a number of Welsh Universities also provided research support to Aldermaston at various times during the programme in the 1950s. As an example, physicists at Swansea University played an important role just before the first ‘Hurricane’ test in 1952, providing advice on how to resolve a problem with the switch (the trigatron, a kind of spark gap switch capable of operating at high voltages and currents) which provided the current to the detonators of the bomb. There was a danger of premature firing of the weapon, which consultation with Swansea University physicists helped to resolve. The answer they provided was to submit the trigatron to a special procedure between firings. Professors Frank Llewellyn Jones and Colyn Grey Morgan, in particular, helped with this task.

The Welsh connection with nuclear weapons was not, however, confined to the work of Welsh scientists and engineers in the 1950s. Prior to Aldermaston being chosen as the main site for designing and developing atomic weapons, a site near Fairwood Common, outside Swansea, was also considered. Harlech was also considered for a time as a place to build a production pile to produce plutonium. It was rejected, however, on the grounds that 'the Welsh would resent the desecration of so historic an area.' A Royal Ordnance Factory at Cardiff, however, was set up to develop non-fissile components of Britain's nuclear warheads to be assembled elsewhere at Burghfield and Aldermaston. AWE Cardiff made a very significant contribution to the UK’s nuclear weapons programme. It began production in 1961 and continued until the facility closed in 1997. It had a workforce of 400, and ‘metallurgical capabilities for melting and casting, powder production, impact milling, ball milling, hot pressing, isostatic-pressing, and heat and surface treatment. The facility specialized in high precision components and complex assemblies, including thermonuclear weapon components and beryllium/U-238 tampers for fission primaries.’ From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, between 7,000 and 10,000 lbs of beryllium were processed in the Cardiff facility[34].

The Role of Swansea Scientists and Engineers in Later Nuclear Weapons Programmes

An important part of the Chevaline and Trident programmes from the 1960s to the 1990s was the ‘hardening’ of the warheads for the missiles, to counter the Soviet development of Gallosh Anti-Ballistic Missiles. This involved developing a range of new materials to act as a ‘screen’. While this area remains highly classified it is known that one of these materials was 3-Dimensional Quartz Phenolic (3DQP). This is a phenolic-based material composed of quartz cloth woven into a seamless sock shape and impregnated with phenolic resin and hot-pressed. The quartz material ‘hardens’ the Re-entry Body protecting the nuclear warhead against high-energy neutrons emitted by exo-atmospheric Anti-Ballistic missile (ABM) bursts before re-entry. When cured, 3DQP can be machined in the same way as metals and is tough and fire-resistant. Before this new material from the United States had been adopted for Chevaline, key research on other new materials was undertaken by a number of Swansea Chemists. Other Swansea Physicists and Metallurgists also worked on different parts of the Chevaline and Trident warheads.

Cliff Goode

Goode came from Pontypool and graduated in Chemistry from Swansea University in the late 1950s. He joined the staff at Aldermaston in the 1960s and worked mainly in the Analytical Chemistry Division, initially specialising in the use of neutron activation analysis/gamma-ray spectroscopy in a wide range of applications, including the analysis of trace elements, often at the parts-per-million level, in materials used in the Trident warhead. After spending three years in Defence Science and Technical Intelligence (DSTI) in the MOD in London, he returned to Aldermaston in the early 1980s as Superintendant of Analytical Chemistry. In this role he was responsible for the analysis of various materials, including plutonium, uranium and beryllium. In 1989 he was appointed Head of the Chemistry Technology Division. He was also the UK principal to JOWOG 12b, which dealt specifically with cooperation with the US laboratories on the analysis of warhead materials, especially those used in Trident. He is reported to have been a very keen tennis player.

Brian Davies

Davies was another notable Chemist who worked at Aldermaston. He came from Ammanford in the Swansea Valley and attended Swansea University, graduating in the mid-1950s. During the period of nuclear testing he had responsibilities for analysing nuclear debris both from British and foreign nuclear tests. In the 1980s he was section chief in the Analytical Chemistry Division working on the analysis of non-radioactive materials used in UK nuclear weapons. He was transferred to the Office of the Assistant Chief Scientific Officer (Nuclear) (ACSA(N)) in London in the 1990s, where he had the important responsibility for maintaining the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement, under which the JOWOGS system was (and continues to be) conducted, and which is at the heart of the Anglo-American nuclear special relationship. He was also involved with maintaining ACO 140 (the UK nuclear weapons classification guide), which is a highly classified document that gives guidance on all aspects of the UK nuclear weapons programme.

Brian Thomas

Thomas, from Newport, joined AWRE straight after graduating from Swansea University with a Ph.D. in gas discharge phenomena in 1967. His early career involved work in the Optical Group on high-speed photography and its applications to plasmas and upper atmosphere events. He was a founder member of the AWE laser programme initially focusing on the development of diagnostic equipment for laser-plasma experiments. In 1973 he led a team carrying out these experiments and also worked on laser-plasma interaction theory and target design. As such he became a key member of JOWOG 37, which involved collaboration between British and American scientists on Laboratory Plasma Physics. By 1983 he had become recognised as a distinguished scientist in AWE’s Plasma Physics Division, concentrating on the design of laser targets for experiments that were intended to meet Aldermaston’s requirements for improved understanding of high energy density physics.

His work in the plasma physics area has been of considerable importance in helping to maintain and underwrite warheads for the British nuclear deterrent force. Initially working with the HELEN laser he went on from 2003 to work with the state-of-the-art Orion laser. It is reported that Orion delivers a combination of ten “long-pulse” beams (a thousand millionth of a second in duration) and two petawatt beams (some of the most powerful laser beams ever created). The laser beams are directed into the Target Hall where the experiments are conducted in a 4-metre diameter target chamber operated at ultra-high vacuum. The Orion facility allows scientists, like Brian Thomas, to conduct research into high density physics phenomena, which occur at the heart of a nuclear explosion or the interior of a star. His work in this area has involved research in the United States with US scientists from Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and from 1994 to 1997 he chaired the Los Alamos Physics Division Review Committee. He then went on to chair the AWE Think Tank which covered all aspects of Britain’s future nuclear force.

Although he officially retired in 2003, he continued to work part-time at Aldermaston. In 2007 his major contribution to laser-plasma research was recognised by the prestigious Edward Teller Award from the Fusion Energy Division of the American Nuclear Society ‘in recognition of pioneering research and leadership in Inertial Fusion Sciences and Applications.’ At the time of writing he remains on the staff of AWE in a part-time capacity. In his spare time he has written a book of poetry entitled It Struck Me and, in line with his deep commitment to the land of his birth, he is engaged in writing a book on the History of Wales. He was awarded the OBE in 2001.

Malcolm Jones

Jones joined the staff at Aldermaston in 1967 at the same time as Brian Thomas[35]. The son of a miner, he was brought up in Nantymoel in the Ogmore Valley. One of his close friends while growing up was Lyn Davies who won a gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Jones graduated with a first class degree from Swansea University in 1964 and went on to do a Ph.D. in solid state physics before joining AWRE straight from University. In his early career he was involved in research and development into electronic aspects of nuclear warheads, including the electro-explosive firing circuits. This work involved the design of the arming, fusing and firing architectures of the warhead. He later became involved in important work on the safety issues associated with the Chevaline Arming System and subsequently, as a Nuclear Safety Adviser to senior MoD and AWE committees, he provided advice on the contents of the UK’s top level Nuclear Weapons Safety standards which remain in place today. He also set up the JOWOG 44 group on nuclear weapon safety assessment methodologies and acted as chair of the group for more than 20 years. He was a member of a number of other JOWOGS dealing with Radiation Simulation and Kinetic Effects, Energetic Materials, Warhead Electrical Components and Technologies, Facilities, and Nuclear Weapons Engineering. His major contribution in all of these Anglo-American scientific groups was on nuclear weapons safety[36].

With the development of the Soviet Gallosh anti-ballistic missile system in the 1970s and 1980s an AWE group was set up to consider how these defences might affect the effectiveness of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Malcolm Jones was an original member of this group and had responsibility for overseeing the work on potential radiation effects on the Chevaline and later the Trident systems. The group also had a responsibility for assessing the viability of the American Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), known as ‘Star Wars’, during the Reagan administration. The advice provided by the AWE group on SDI was of major importance in the decision by the Thatcher government to express its concerns about the implications and viability of the American programme.

He also played a part in the technical studies leading up to the decision by the Thatcher government to procure Trident missiles from the United States in July 1980.

In his words:

Prior to the UK’s decision to buy the Trident system I worked on potential high beta vehicle concepts including the requirements for fuzing options and this led to the development of UK’s first re-entry plasma code which was necessary for the assessment of radar interference. This led to closer collaboration with US colleagues who were then ahead in this field. I was also a member of the initial AWE party to visit the US and who were tasked to carry out a technical assessment of those parts of the Trident system which were being procured[37].

Together with Chris Hall also from Aldermaston, and two US scientific colleagues from the Sandia Laboratory, Stan Spray and Richard Swoebel, Malcolm Jones identified a gap in nuclear weapons safety methodology in 1992. Each technical area of cooperation had its own safety aspects, but there was nothing that looked across the board in terms of assessment methodologies bringing all information together in a systems context. To fill this gap a Joint Working Group (JOWOG 44) was set up, which he chaired until 2016. As Chair of JOWOG 44, he was also a member of an Enhanced Cooperation group (EC12), which was concerned with concepts relating to Enhanced Nuclear Safety.

Malcolm Jones was highly regarded by his colleagues in the United States. For a number of years AWE’s Chief Scientist, Ken Johnson, sat as the UK member of an independent review panel which assessed the effectiveness of Sandia Laboratories’ Surety organisation. The panel consisted of senior retired or semi-retired members from the US Department of Energy, the US nuclear weapons design laboratories, as well as external agencies such as NASA and the US military. The panel was designed to assess the safety, performance and security of Sandia’s nuclear weapons stockpile programme. After the Chief Scientist stepped down from his membership of the review panel. Malcolm Jones was asked to take his place[38].

In his career Malcolm Jones gave keynote addresses and lectures at numerous international conferences and represented AWE and the MoD at various events, including anniversary celebrations at Russian nuclear weapons design laboratories after the end of the Cold War. He also received an award from the All Russian Research Institute for Automatics for work he did on fostering nuclear safety. Other honours included the MBE and the John Challens medal, which is AWE’s principal award for continued high quality lifetime contribution to Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics. In 2019 he was still working as an independent adviser on the safety of the UK’s nuclear programme and as a panel review member engaged in advising AWE’s senior management on the direction and needs for current and future programmes.

Malcolm Chappell

Chappell, who came from Aberdare, was another physicist who graduated from Swansea University in the mid-1960s. Like Malcolm Jones his specialism was electronics and he also worked on the firing circuits of nuclear weapons, including the Chevaline and Trident systems.

Apart from physicists, there were a number of metallurgists, following on from Graham Hopkin in the 1940s and 1950s, who did important work at Aldermaston from the 1970s onwards.

Colin Waters

Waters graduated from Swansea University in 1975 and later in the decade joined Geoff Ellis’s Metallurgy Department at Aldermaston working initially on beryllium. He later moved on to work in the information technology and computer science fields. He moved to Burghfield in the mid-1980s and in the 1990s he joined the Defence Intelligence Service in London. In 2004 he joined ACSA(N) taking over the secretariat of the Defence Safety Committee. He also had responsibilities for overseeing the Aldermaston warhead research programme. Like the others he was involved in a number of JOWOGS.

Terry Jenkins

Jenkins was from the Merthyr area, graduated from Swansea University and worked in Geoff Ellis’s Metallurgy Division. For many years he was the officer-in-charge of one of the large production facilities working on both enriched and depleted uranium and plutonium. During the 1980s and 1990s his group manufactured components for Chevaline and Trident warheads as well as for experimental devices used in nuclear tests. Terry played rugby as a young man and he was a keen squash player.

Perllyn Thomas

Thomas, from Glyncorrwg in the Arfon Valley, was another Swansea scientist who contributed to the Chevaline programme in a rather different way. Thomas was educated at Maesteg Grammar School before going on to Swansea University to do a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Initially he worked as a graduate apprentice with Rolls Royce in its Aero Engine Division in Derby. He returned to Wales in 1971 as a Quality Manager with Zimmer Orthopaedic Ltd, in Bridgend. In 1974 he joined Hunting Engineering Ltd (HEL) as the Project Quality Engineer in charge of a team responsible for those elements of the Chevaline system for which HEL were the design authority. In 1978, ‘as Head of Quality Engineering, he was responsible for Quality Planning and Engineering for Chevaline Production, Calibration Systems, Systems Audit and SQA Systems[39].’

Following this, in 1983 he was made Head of Product Engineering and in 1989 Production Manager with HEL, before joining AWE Cardiff in 1993 as General Manager.

Pam Kurds

Although most of those involved in the various nuclear programmes were men, one female scientist from Swansea also contributed to the work done at Aldermaston. Pam Kurds (later Hart) joined Aldermaston straight from school in the late 1960s as a junior scientific assistant. She worked in the Analytical Chemistry Division and published a number of scientific papers with the Head of the Division, Alwyn Davies from Ceredigion. She later worked up to a more senior management position in Aldermaston the 1990s.

Kelvin Donne

The ‘fast track’ from the Swansea University Physics Department was also evident with the appointment of another Swansea graduate Kelvin Donne. Professors Llewellyn Jones, Grey Morgan and Thonemann of Swansea University’s Physics Department had close links with Aldermaston and Harwell and a number of their graduate students were appointed to positions at AWRE. Following his Ph.D. research in the computational physics of electrical discharges, Donne was appointed to a position at Aldermaston in September 1977. He was told before he left Swansea to lose his Welsh accent by Professor Grey Morgan.

He joined the Department of Mathematical Physics where ‘there was a significant Welsh influence’. In a note to one of the authors (JB) he highlights the very impressive colleagues he worked with. In his words:

…mixing with high flying theoreticians from Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews etc transformed me as a physicist … The atmosphere in the Department was similar to a research intensive university department, with a library just across the quadrangle. Lord Penney still had an office opposite to mine and occasionally popped in. Staff were expected to produce regular (internal) papers on their original research work and these papers also provided evidence for staff annual review boards – promotion prospects were very good in that Department.

In his note he points out that AWRE had one of the very first CRAY supercomputers in the UK, which was an indication of the high level of resources available to his Department. He also expresses the view that AWRE was a tremendous asset to the UK scientific community and that its research was very highly regarded in the United States. He also says that one of his great achievements while at AWRE was ‘reaching the finals of the interdepartmental cricket competition and winning the only sporting trophy he ever won!’ He left Aldermaston in 1982 to pursue an academic career. In 2010 he was appointed to a University of Wales research chair at Swansea Metropolitan University. He is currently Professorial Fellow at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

Ken Morgan

As the personal memoir below shows, another Welsh scientist, Ken Morgan, also found himself in a department targeted by recruitment staff from Aldermaston. In his case it was Bristol University. He also confirms the Welsh influence at AWRE. Professor Morgan later went on to hold a number of senior positions at Swansea University, and in 2008 he became Professor of Computational Modelling in the Welsh Institute of Mathematical and Computational Sciences.

Personal memoir by Professor Ken Morgan
I was born in Llanelli in 1945 and I attended Llanelli Boys Grammar School. In 1963, I went to the University of Bristol and studied for a degree in mathematics. I remained at Bristol to study for a Ph.D. in fluid mechanics in the Department of Mathematics. In March 1969, AWRE approached the Department and asked if there were any Ph.D. students who were interested in working at Aldermaston. Although I already had a couple of offers from the Scientific Civil Service, I thought that AWRE sounded interesting and I arranged a visit. During the visit, I spent most of the time with Henry Pike, who was senior superintendent of Design Mathematics (SSDM). The SSDM group and the SSCM group (led by A. H. Armstrong) came under John Corner, who was chief of Mathematical Physics (CMP). Following this visit, without a formal interview, I was offered, and accepted, a job as a scientific officer with the UKAEA at Aldermaston. I started work in CMP in September 1969 and I was located within the SSDM group. Alan Price and Peter Burgess were two others from South Wales in CMP at that time, who were both experimental officers. On my induction course, we had a talk on the Scientific Work of the Weapons Group by Dr W. G. John of SSWA. He was also a Welshman. For part of my time at AWRE, I worked directly with C. Barham on design aspects. However, at this time, Aldermaston was very much into ‘diversification’, which meant that the major portion of my time was spent working with Nick Hoskin on the modelling of fast reactor safety problems. Nick Hoskin had undertaken his Ph.D. studies under Sir James Lighthill at the University of Manchester and he had also worked closely there with Alan Turing. His modelling work with D. C. Cooper, later professor of Computer Science at Swansea University, was important in the analysis of the Windscale accident that occurred in 1957.
The UKAEA was building the prototype fast reactor (PFR) at Dounreay and the CEGB had plans to start constructing commercial fast reactor (CFR 1) in the late 1970s. These reactors were cooled with liquid sodium and we were looking at developing computer models for predicting the results of any fuel/coolant thermal interaction that might occur following a coolant blockage in a fast reactor core sub-assembly. The modelling work was accompanied by a large experimental effort at AWRE Foulness. John Rees, who was Welsh, was in charge of the Foulness work. These activities were undertaken in collaboration with UKAEA staff at the Fast Reactor Design Office in Risley and the Safety and Reliability Directorate at Culcheth. We also interacted with other scientists at UKAEA and CEGB research establishments. One of these was Keith Roberts, at Culham, who had been a significant contributor to technological advancements at Aldermaston in the 1950s. I left Aldermaston in 1972 and took up a position at the University of Exeter. I moved to Swansea in 1975.

Daniel Thomas

Daniel Thomas was another graduate of the Swansea University Physics Department who went on to work at Aldermaston. Daniel graduated with a PhD in laser spectroscopy and went on to work in the Material Sciences unit at AWE in the 1990s and 2000s. The close links which had been established between Aldermaston and the Physics Department at Swansea (see later) meant that former graduates, like Daniel Thomas, became involved in a number of joint laser-based research projects with the University. Daniel went on to hold a senior position in the Nuclear Threat Reduction area of AWE.

Welsh scientists at Aldermaston today

Some of the Welsh scientists who played an important part in the work on Chevaline and on Trident have continued their involvement with the work at Aldermaston through to the present day. This involves Daniel Thomas in the Threat Reduction area, and is true of Malcolm Jones and Brian Thomas who, as distinguished scientists at AWE, continued working on a part-time basis after retirement. In 2005 the Defence Secretary at the time, John Reid, announced that the MoD would be taking forward a programme of investment in sustaining key skills and facilities at the Atomic Weapons Establishment. This was known as the Nuclear Warhead Capability Sustainment Programme (NWCSP).

Retaining the skills of key scientists like Malcolm Jones and Brain Thomas was an important part of the NWCSP; the work on laser research conducted by Brian Thomas has been particularly so. Following the moratorium on nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site announced by President George H. W. Bush in 1992 and Britain’s ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the UK has not undertaken any further nuclear weapons tests. This has meant that it has been very dependent on an historic database of information derived from past nuclear tests and from a much more theoretical approach centred on modelling the behaviour of warhead materials and components at extreme temperatures and pressures. This has depended on the Orion high-powered laser facilities at AWE where Brian Thomas and his colleagues have continued to make a major contribution to the work being done on the modernisation and safety of the warhead for the Trident missile (the Mark 4A modified warhead) and the revamped nuclear warhead, known as High Surety Warhead (HSW), which was a British version of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) under development in the United States. Apart from maintaining the warheads for Trident safely and reliably and ensuring the capability to design future warheads, the contemporary responsibilities of AWE include work on decommissioning excess warheads in the existing Trident stockpile, following the government’s decision in 2010 to reduce the number from 225 to around 180 by 2025, and also developing the skills, technologies and techniques that are necessary to support existing and future arms control agreements. At present this involves a staff of around 5,000 in a wide range of scientific, engineering and administrative roles.

Not surprisingly, the relative contribution of Welsh scientists and engineers is significantly less in the contemporary period than it was in the early post-war period when UK nuclear weapons were produced. Nevertheless, scientists and engineers from Wales are still making a contribution to the development of the UK nuclear deterrent today. These include Geraint Parry-Owen, who was born in Bangor in 1963 and attended Ysgol Dinas Bran in Llangollen. He went on to study at Swansea University, and graduated in mechanical engineering in 1985. He joined Aldermaston in 1988 and currently holds the position of distinguished engineer.

Concluding Remarks and Further Observations

It is not easy to establish why so many Swansea scientists and engineers have played such an important part in the development of UK nuclear weapons and the close relationship with the United States. Three explanations might be considered. Firstly, science and engineering have had very strong historical roots in Wales. As the Scientists of Wales series has shown: ‘For much of Welsh history, science has played a key role in Welsh culture: bards drew on scientific ideas in their poetry; renaissance gentlemen devoted themselves to natural history; the leaders of early Welsh Methodism filled their hymns with scientific references. During the nineteenth century, scientific societies flourished and Wales was transformed by engineering and technology. And, in the twentieth century, Welsh scientists were influential in many fields of science and technology.’ The Welsh atomic energy scientists and engineers of the twentieth century came from this very long and important tradition.

Secondly, there is a strong tradition in Wales in the value of education. The Workers Education Associations played an important part of Welsh life in the inter- and post-war periods raising aspirations and enhancing the career prospects of many young people with a working class background. Ieuan Maddock was the son of a miner, who was expecting to be a carpenter after leaving school. Colin Hughes was also a miner’s son. State help to go to University in the post-war period also contributed to the opportunity for many working class children to achieve a better life than their parents.

Thirdly, the quality of research at Swansea was very high with eminent academics working in many of the key scientific and engineering areas. The physicists Professors Frank Llewellyn Jones, Colyn Grey Morgan, Helmut Telle and Peter Thonemann were particularly well known in their fields. Llewellyn Jones and Grey Morgan made important contributions to solving key problems that arose in the early atomic energy programme[40] . A photograph of the Swansea group, with Professor G.P. Thomson is given in Fig 3.

Frank Llewellyn Jones had worked at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough during the war. He joined the University in 1932, from Magdalen College, Oxford, and developed a major reputation as research physicist in ionization physics and the physics of electrical contacts. He was Head of the Department between 1945 and 1965 and went on to become Principal of the University from 1965 to 1974 (and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wales from 1969 to 1971).

Colyn Grey Morgan played an important role in the development of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in the late 1950s and 1960s. The work on high voltage discharge physics (useful for accelerator development) was pivotal in the early research undertaken at CERN. His work on resonance ionization spectroscopy won him an international reputation and his research on high-density plasma physics made a significant contribution to the development of the Science Research Council Central Laser Facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory[41] .

In 1979 he wrote a review article, ‘Laser Spectroscopy of Ultra-trace Quantities’ in the Chemistry Society Review. This was seen by senior staff at Aldermaston and he was asked to write a Report for them outlining the principles of laser-based analytical methods applicable to chemical analysis activities. This led to the establishment of more formal links between the Swansea Physics Department and AWRE which involved joint research projects and sponsorship of a number of Ph.D. students.

Helmut Telle joined the Department of Physics in 1984 as Professor of Laser Physics just after the Morgan Report was written. He had spent some time doing research in Canada and France on molecular reaction dynamics, exploiting spectroscopic techniques. He continued this research in Swansea focusing on laser systems and spectroscopic techniques for trace detection of atomic and molecular species, as applied to industry, bio-medicine and the environment. This led to the establishment of the Analytical Laser Spectroscopy Unit (ASLU) under his direction. The Unit established a close working relationship with AWE and its early work focused on Resonance Ionisation Mass Spectroscopy which ‘allowed determination of the isotopic abundances in uranium samples by performing experiments on lead, the final product in the decay chain.’ The Unit’s photonics expertise in developing Tuneable Diode Laser Absorption Spectroscopy also helped AWE to monitor ageing processes of some of its explosive formulations. (See here).

This close collaboration led AWE to set up its own Laboratory in the Materials Science Research Division in 2003. A former ALSU Ph.D. student of Professor Telle, Dr Ben Griffiths, whose research involved laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, went on to play an important role in the new Laboratory.

Peter Thonemann worked at AERE Harwell and from 1949 to 1960 he designed and built the fusion reactor Zero-Energy Toroidal Assembly (ZETA). He was Head of Physics at Swansea from 1968 to 1984 where his pioneering research on fusion inspired later generations of students.

Important research was also being undertaken from the 1940s to the 1960s in the Chemistry Department by Professors Shoppe, Hassall and Purnell; in the Mathematics Department by Professors Oldroyd, Weston, Temperley and Dirac; and in Metallurgy and Material Technology by Professors O’Neill, Singer and Burke. All contributed to the very high teaching standards at Swansea.

No doubt there are many other individual reasons why so many scientists and engineers from Swansea were involved in the development of nuclear weapons in the UK. Whether the nuclear weapons that they helped to develop were responsible for keeping the peace during the Cold War remains a hotly debated subject. Many of those involved believed that they did. Others had some doubts and anxieties about the work that they did. Whatever the truth, judged in purely scientific terms, these scientists and engineers, mostly born or educated in Swansea, played a highly influential role in what was one of the most important scientific and engineering developments of the twentieth century.

Notes and Bibliography

[1] See Steven P. Lee, Morality, Prudence and Nuclear Weapons, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[2] N. Bohr and J. A. Wheeler The Mechanism of Nuclear Fission, Physical Review 56 (1939) 426-50

[3] See Lorna Arnold and Mark Smith, Britain, Australia and the Bomb: The Nuclear Tests and their Aftermath, (London: Palgrave, 2006), pp. 1-2.

[4] The scientists included G.P. Thomson, (Chair), P.M.S. Blackett, J. Chadwick, J.D. Cockcroft, C.D. Ellis, W.N. Haworth, P.B. Moon and M.L.E. Oliphant. 'MAUD' was a code-name designed to obscure the work of the Committee. For the origins of this name see L. Arnold and M. Smith, Britain, Australia and the Bomb; The Nuclear Test and their Aftermath. (London: Palgrave, 2006) p293. It was the result of a mistaken understanding of correspondence between Niels Bohr and Otto Frisch. This source also has a very good explanation of the importance of the Frisch-Peierls Memorandum, produced in the Spring of 1940, which first explained the method needed to separate uranium-235 and the possibility of producing an atomic weapon.

[5] Their estimate was that the material for the first bomb could be ready by 1943.

[6] /Docs/Begin/Maud.shtml.


[8] The MAUD Report was shown to Vannevar Bush and James Conant, the new head of the National Defense Research Committee. It was they who initiated further studies which led to the Manhattan Project.

[9] L. Arnold and M. Smith, Britain, Australia and the Bomb; The Nuclear Test and their Aftermath (London: Palgrave, 2006)., p.3.

[10] The cavity magnetron was an electronic tube that could produce microwave pulses with powers of many kilowatts. This compact device meant that radar sets could be more easily installed in aircraft, for instance. Apart from the Frisch-Peierls Memorandum and the cavity magnetron, Tizard’s briefcase contained information about VT fuses, jet engine designs, rocket designs, super chargers, gyroscopic gunsights and submarine detection devices.

[11] See R. Hanbury Brown, H.C. Minnett and F.W.G. White, ‘Edward George Bowen’ in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Volume 38, (London: The Royal Society, 1992)

[12] Magaret Gowing, Independence and Deterrence: Britain and Atomic Energy 1945-1952. Volume 2: Policy Execution, (London: Macmillan, 1974). This comment was made about the team that produced Britain’s first atomic weapons device in 1952.

[13] Brian Cathcart, Test of Greatness: Britain’s Struggle For The Atom Bomb, (London: John Murray, 1994), p.136.

[14] The actinide series encompasses the 15 metallic chemical elements with atomic numbers from 89 to 103. Naturally occurring uranium and thorium, and synthetically produced plutonium, are the most abundant actinides on Earth.

[15]See Brian Eyre Lewis Edward John Roberts CBE. 31 January 1922-10 April 2012, Biographical Memoirs,

[16] The Anglo-Canadian project had been set up in Montreal after the UK failed to integrate the (Freanch) Halban/ Kowarski group working at Cambridge into the slow neutron group in Chicago under Enrico Fermi. Chalk River, 130 miles west of Ottawa, was chosen in July 1944 as the site of a heavy water pile.

[17] Many at the time thought that Harwell had largely fulfilled its mission in laying the scientific and technological base underpinning the exploitation of nuclear energy.

[18] Brian Eyre, op.cit.

[19] Note to John Baylis, ‘Reminiscences of the Nuclear Industry,’ 22 January 2010.

[20] Plutonium is a man-made element created when an atom of uranium-238 absorbs a neutron and, following two beta-minus decays, becomes plutonium-239. For neutrons to be absorbed by uranium their speed must be slowed down by passing through a ‘moderator’ of either graphite or heavy water. The Bismuth Phosphate Process was used to extract plutonium from spent uranium fuel. Despite the Anglo-Canadian work done at the Montreal Laboratory during the war and the involvement of British scientists and engineers at Los Alamos their knowledge of the metallurgy of plutonium was very limited at the end of the war. Plutonium had been used in the Trinity test and the Nagasaki bomb and it was recognised by the scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project that plutonium was superior to uranium-235 for use in atomic bombs. The critical mass of plutonium was less and it was more efficient as an explosive, weight-for-weight. It was calculated that a bomb would need ten times as much uranuim-235 as plutonium to produce half the TNT equivalent. Margaret Gowing, Independence and Deterrence, Volume 1, p.165.

[21] Brian Cathcart, p.132.

[22]Margaret Gowing, Independence and Deterrence, Volume 2, p.468

[23] See John Baylis and Kristan Stoddart, The British Nuclear Experience: The Role of Beliefs, Culture and Identity, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[24] Lorna Arnold, p.73

[25]Note from Alwyn Davies, July 2016.

[26] Other key members of Penney’s ‘top’ team were Electronics and Instrumentation specialists Charles Adams, John Challens, and L. C. Tyte; Mathematician John Corner; Physicist Herbert Pike; Explosive specialists Ernie Mott and Bill Moyce; and Blast expert Roy Pilgrim. Other important figures were K. W. Allen who was the Senior Superintendent of the Nuclear Research Division at Aldermaston and Brian Taylor who was a member of the Mathematical Physics Division.

[27] See The Biographical Memoirs of the Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol.37 (Nov. 1991), 325. In particular, Maddock did some important work with oscilloscopes, as well as very high speed cameras capable of taking photographs at the rate of 500 000 frames per second.

[28] Lorna Arnold and Mark Smith, p.39.

[29] Ibid. p.71.

[30] Lorna Arnold, ‘Percy White Obituary: Scientist who helped develop Britain’s first atomic bomb’, The Guardian, 16 January 2013

[31]Gary Gregor ‘Secret scientist at the centre of Britain’s nuclear programme,’ South Wales Evening Post, 16 July 2016. See also Lorna Arnold, Britain and the H-Bomb, p.73.

[32]K. Harris and P. Edwards, Turning points in solid-state materials and surface science, (Cambridge: RSC, 2008), p.797.

[33] Interview with Alan Macfarlane, 29 November and 5 December 2007.


[35] Brian Thomas and Malcolm Jones completed their Ph.D.s from Swansea at much the same time. There were also a number of other physicists from Swansea who graduated at this time and went on to join the Aldermaston staff. These included William Denly Owen, Meurig Davies and David Powell.

[36]Malcolm Jones was involved in JOWOG 6, JOWOG 9, JOWOG 23, JOWOG30, JOWOG 31 and JOWOG 44.

[37]Notes provided to JB by Malcolm Jones on a visit to AWE on the 28 November 2017.

[38]Note to JB, 20 June 2019.

[39] Quarterly Newsletter of the Atomic Weapons Establishment, April 1993.

[40] JB has been sent a copy of ‘Notes on possible Swansea Physics links to the UK Atomic Weapons programme’ by Professor Philip Prewett which highlights the work of the Department on ionization and its link to fast switches used in nuclear weapons. Professor Prewett also highlights the importance of Professor Peter Thonemann who became Head of the Department of Physics at Swansea in 1968. Professor Thonemann had been the former Head of the ZETA project at Harwell and the first Deputy Director of the Culham Lab. See David Dykes, The University College of Swansea: An Illustrated History (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1992).

[41] It is no accident that the current Director of this facility is Professor John Collier, an alumnus of Swansea Physics, and an Honorary Professor of Physics at the University.

Emeritus Professor John Baylis is a graduate of Swansea and Aberystwyth Universities. After starting his career at Liverpool University he taught in the International Politics Department at Aberystwyth University where he held a chair and became Dean of Social Sciences. In 2000 he became Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations and later a Pro Vice-Chancellor at Swansea University. He retired in 2008. He is the author of twenty five books and over one hundred articles and chapters on various aspects of international relations, strategic studies and nuclear history.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      
Professor Mike Charlton is a graduate of University College London, where he also started his academic career in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. He moved to Swansea in 1999 and has been Head of Physics there, as well as Head of the School of Physical Sciences. He has held a Royal Society University Research Fellowship and an EPSRC Advanced Fellowship, and he has over two hundred research papers on atomic physics using low energy antiparticles. He is currently Vice President for STEMM of the Learned Society of Wales.