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Atomic Energy Research Establishment

The Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) near Harwell, Oxfordshire was the main centre for atomic energy research and development in the United Kingdom from the 1940s to the 1990s.



In 1945 John Cockcroft was asked to set up a research laboratory in order to further the use of nuclear fission for both military purposes and generating energy. The criteria for selection involved finding somewhere remote with a good water supply, but within reach of good transport links and a university with a nuclear physics laboratory. This more or less limited the choice to Oxford or Cambridge. It had been decided that an RAF airfield would be chosen; the aircraft hangars being ideal to house the large atomic piles that would need to be built. Although Cambridge University had the better nuclear physics facility (the Cavendish Laboratory), the RAF did not want to abandon any of its eastern airfields (because of the new threat of the cold war), therefore Harwell was chosen when the RAF made the airfield available. RAF Harwell, was some sixteen miles south of Oxford near Didcot and the village of Harwell, and on 1 January 1946 the Atomic Energy Research Establishment was formed, coming under the Ministry of Supply. The scientists mostly took over both accommodations and work buildings from the departing RAF.

The early laboratory had several specialist divisions: Chemistry (initially headed by Egon Bretscher, later by Robert Spence), General Physics (Herbert Skinner), Nuclear Physics (initially headed by Otto Frisch, later E. Bretscher), Reactor Physics (John Dunworth), Theoretical Physics (Klaus Fuchs, later Brian Flowers), Isotopes (Henry Seligmann) and Engineering (Harold Tongue, later Robert Jackson). Directors after Cockcroft included Basil Schonland, Arthur Vick and Walter Marshall.

Early reactors

Such was the interest in nuclear power and the priority devoted to it in those days that the first reactor, GLEEP, was operating by 15 August 1947. GLEEP (Graphite Low Energy Experimental Pile) was a low energy (3 kilowatt) graphite-moderated air-cooled reactor. The first reactor in Western Europe, it was remarkably long-lived, operating until 1990.

A successor to GLEEP, called BEPO (British Experimental Pile 0) was constructed based on the experience with GLEEP, and commenced operation in 1948. BEPO was shut down in 1968.

LIDO was an enriched uranium thermal swimming pool reactor which operated from 1956 to 1972 and was mainly used for shielding and nuclear physics experiments. It was fully dismantled and returned to a green field site in 1995.

A pair of larger 26 MW reactors, DIDO and PLUTO, which used enriched uranium with a heavy water moderator came online in 1956 and 1957 respectively. These small reactors were used primarily for testing the behaviour of different materials under intense neutron irradiation to help decide what materials to build reactor components out of. A sample could be irradiated for a few months to simulate the radiation dose which it would receive over the lifetime of a power reactor. They also took over commercial isotope production from BEPO after that was shut down. DIDO and GLEEP themselves were shut down in 1990 and the fuel, moderator and ancillary buildings removed. The GLEEP reactor and the hangar it was situated in were decommissioned 2005. The current plans are to decommission the BEPO, DIDO and PLUTO reactors by 2020.


One of the most significant experiments to occur at AERE was the ZETA nuclear fusion experiment. An early attempt to build a large-scale nuclear fusion reactor, the project was started in 1954, and the first successes were achieved in 1957. In 1958 the project was shut down, as it was believed that no further progress could be made with the kind of design that ZETA represented. (see Timeline of nuclear fusion).

Organisational history

In 1954 AERE was incorporated into the newly formed United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). Harwell and other laboratories were to assume responsibility for atomic energy research and development. It was part of the Department of Trade and Industry.

During the 1980s the slowdown of the British nuclear energy program resulted in a greatly reduced demand for the kind of work being done by the UKAEA. Pressures on government spending also reduced the funding available. Reluctant to merely disband a quality scientific research organisation, UKAEA was required to divert its research effort to the solving of scientific problems for industry by providing paid consultancy or services. UKAEA was ordered to operate on a 'trading fund' basis, i.e. to account for itself financially as though it was a private corporation, while remaining fully government owned. After several years of transition, UKAEA was divided in the early 1990s. UKAEA retained ownership of all land and infrastructure and of all nuclear facilities, and of businesses directly related to nuclear power. The remainder was privatised as AEA Technology and floated on the London Stock Exchange. Harwell Laboratory contained elements of both organisations, though the land and infrastructure was owned by UKAEA.

The name Atomic Energy Research Establishment was dropped at the same time, and the site became known as the Harwell International Business Centre. The adjacent site known as Chilton/Harwell Science Campus houses the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and Diamond Light Source. In 2007, both sites started to use the name Harwell Science and Innovation Campus. [1]

See also

  • Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment
  • Atomic Weapons Establishment
  • List of nuclear reactors
  • JET fusion reactor
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Atomic_Energy_Research_Establishment". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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