Atomic Energy Research Establishment

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The Atomic Energy Research Establishment (known as AERE or colloquially Harwell) near Harwell
Harwell, Oxfordshire
Harwell is a village and civil parish in the Vale of White Horse west of Didcot. It was part of Berkshire until the 1974 boundary changes transferred it to Oxfordshire.-Amenities:...

, Oxfordshire
Oxfordshire is a county in the South East region of England, bordering on Warwickshire and Northamptonshire , Buckinghamshire , Berkshire , Wiltshire and Gloucestershire ....

, was the main centre for atomic energy
Nuclear power
Nuclear power is the use of sustained nuclear fission to generate heat and electricity. Nuclear power plants provide about 6% of the world's energy and 13–14% of the world's electricity, with the U.S., France, and Japan together accounting for about 50% of nuclear generated electricity...

 research and development in the United Kingdom
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 from the 1940s to the 1990s.


In 1945 John Cockcroft
John Cockcroft
Sir John Douglas Cockcroft OM KCB CBE FRS was a British physicist. He shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for splitting the atomic nucleus with Ernest Walton, and was instrumental in the development of nuclear power....

 was asked to set up a research laboratory to further the use of nuclear fission
Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts , often producing free neutrons and photons , and releasing a tremendous amount of energy...

 for both military
A military is an organization authorized by its greater society to use lethal force, usually including use of weapons, in defending its country by combating actual or perceived threats. The military may have additional functions of use to its greater society, such as advancing a political agenda e.g...

 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
Nuclear physics
Nuclear physics is the field of physics that studies the building blocks and interactions of atomic nuclei. The most commonly known applications of nuclear physics are nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons technology, but the research has provided application in many fields, including those...

 laboratory. This more or less limited the choice to Oxford
The city of Oxford is the county town of Oxfordshire, England. The city, made prominent by its medieval university, has a population of just under 165,000, with 153,900 living within the district boundary. It lies about 50 miles north-west of London. The rivers Cherwell and Thames run through...

 or Cambridge
The city of Cambridge is a university town and the administrative centre of the county of Cambridgeshire, England. It lies in East Anglia about north of London. Cambridge is at the heart of the high-technology centre known as Silicon Fen – a play on Silicon Valley and the fens surrounding the...

. 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
Nuclear physics
Nuclear physics is the field of physics that studies the building blocks and interactions of atomic nuclei. The most commonly known applications of nuclear physics are nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons technology, but the research has provided application in many fields, including those...

 facility (the Cavendish Laboratory
Cavendish Laboratory
The Cavendish Laboratory is the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge, and is part of the university's School of Physical Sciences. It was opened in 1874 as a teaching laboratory....

), the RAF did not want to abandon any of its eastern airfields (because of the new threat of the Cold War
Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...

), therefore Harwell was chosen when the RAF made the airfield available. RAF Harwell
RAF Harwell
RAF Harwell was a Royal Air Force airfield in former Berkshire, England, near the village of Harwell, later the site of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. The site is now in Oxfordshire....

, was some sixteen miles south of Oxford
The city of Oxford is the county town of Oxfordshire, England. The city, made prominent by its medieval university, has a population of just under 165,000, with 153,900 living within the district boundary. It lies about 50 miles north-west of London. The rivers Cherwell and Thames run through...

 near Didcot
Didcot is a town and civil parish in Oxfordshire about south of Oxford. Until 1974 it was in Berkshire, but was transferred to Oxfordshire in that year, and from Wallingford Rural District to the district of South Oxfordshire...

 and the village of Harwell
Harwell, Oxfordshire
Harwell is a village and civil parish in the Vale of White Horse west of Didcot. It was part of Berkshire until the 1974 boundary changes transferred it to Oxfordshire.-Amenities:...

, and on 1 January 1946 the Atomic Energy Research Establishment was formed, coming under the Ministry of Supply
Ministry of Supply
The Ministry of Supply was a department of the UK Government formed in 1939 to co-ordinate the supply of equipment to all three British armed forces, headed by the Minister of Supply. There was, however, a separate ministry responsible for aircraft production and the Admiralty retained...

. The scientists mostly took over both accommodations and work buildings from the departing RAF
Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world...


The early laboratory had several specialist divisions: Chemistry (initially headed by Egon Bretscher
Egon Bretscher
Egon Bretscher was a Swiss physicist.Born near Zurich, Switzerland and educated at the ETH there, Bretscher gained a PhD degree in organic chemistry at Edinburgh in 1926. He returned to Zurich as privat docent to Peter Debye, later moving in 1936 to work in Rutherford’s laboratory at the Cavendish...

, later by Robert Spence), General Physics ( H.W.B. Skinner), Nuclear Physics (initially headed by Otto Frisch, later E. Bretscher), Reactor Physics (John Dunworth), Theoretical Physics (Klaus Fuchs
Klaus Fuchs
Klaus Emil Julius Fuchs was a German theoretical physicist and atomic spy who in 1950 was convicted of supplying information from the American, British and Canadian atomic bomb research to the USSR during and shortly after World War II...

, later Brian Flowers), Isotopes (Henry Seligmann) and Engineering (Harold Tongue, later Robert Jackson). Directors after Cockcroft included Basil Schonland
Basil Schonland
Sir Basil Ferdinand Jamieson Schonland CBE FRS was the first president of the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.-Birth and Parentage:...

, Arthur Vick and Walter Marshall.

The decision to site AERE at Harwell had huge implications for a rural area which had depended mainly on agriculture for employment before World War II. The site (which quickly became known colloquially amongst the local population as 'The Atomic') became one of the main employers in the post-war period. It also led to an influx of labour from outside the area, putting pressure on already scarce housing stocks. In response to the problem, hostels and temporary housing were established around the site. The hostels (named 'B' mess and Ridgeway House) provided single room accommodation for staff and were adopted from existing RAF structures on the site. The temporary housing stock consisted of several hundred 'Prefabs', a single storey structure manufactured in parts for quick erection, which was designed originally to help alleviate chronic housing shortages in the immediate post-war period in Britain. Two estates of 'Prefabs' were built to the north and south of the site perimeter, along with a road system and parade of shops. In later years, conventional housing was provided on estates built in Abingdon
Abingdon, Oxfordshire
Abingdon or archaically Abingdon-on-Thames is a market town and civil parish in Oxfordshire, England. It is the seat of the Vale of White Horse district. Previously the county town of Berkshire, Abingdon is one of several places that claim to be Britain's oldest continuously occupied town, with...

, Grove
Grove, Oxfordshire
Grove is a village and civil parish on Letcombe Brook about north of Wantage in the Vale of White Horse. It was part of Berkshire until the 1974 boundary changes transferred it to Oxfordshire.-Parish churches:...

 (near Wantage
Wantage is a market town and civil parish in the Vale of the White Horse, Oxfordshire, England. The town is on Letcombe Brook, about south-west of Abingdon and a similar distance west of Didcot....

) and Newbury
-In the United Kingdom:* Newbury, Berkshire**Newbury **Newbury Racecourse**Newbury F.C.**A.F.C. Newbury**Newbury R.F.C.**Newbury Building Society**Newbury Weekly News**Newbury College**Newbury railway station...

 for employees. In addition, a modern hostel (Rush Common House) was built in Abingdon. The houses were later sold (mainly to their occupants) in the 1980's and the hostels were demolished or adapted for other uses. The 'Prefab' estates lasted until the early 1990's when the residents were transferred to local authority housing.

Early reactors

Such was the interest in nuclear power and the priority devoted to it in those days that the first reactor, GLEEP
GLEEP, which stood for Graphite Low Energy Experimental Pile, was a long-lived experimental British nuclear reactor. Run for the first time on August 15, 1947, it was the first reactor to operate in Western Europe....

, was operating by 15 August 1947. GLEEP (Graphite Low Energy Experimental Pile) was a low power (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
Enriched uranium
Enriched uranium is a kind of uranium in which the percent composition of uranium-235 has been increased through the process of isotope separation. Natural uranium is 99.284% 238U isotope, with 235U only constituting about 0.711% of its weight...

 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
PLUTO reactor
PLUTO was a nuclear reactor at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, Oxfordshire in the United Kingdom, one of five reactors on the site....

, which used enriched uranium
Uranium is a silvery-white metallic chemical element in the actinide series of the periodic table, with atomic number 92. It is assigned the chemical symbol U. A uranium atom has 92 protons and 92 electrons, of which 6 are valence electrons...

 with a heavy water
Heavy water
Heavy water is water highly enriched in the hydrogen isotope deuterium; e.g., heavy water used in CANDU reactors is 99.75% enriched by hydrogen atom-fraction...

Neutron moderator
In nuclear engineering, a neutron moderator is a medium that reduces the speed of fast neutrons, thereby turning them into thermal neutrons capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction involving uranium-235....

 came online in 1956 and 1957 respectively. These small reactors were used primarily for testing the behaviour of different materials under intense neutron
The neutron is a subatomic hadron particle which has the symbol or , no net electric charge and a mass slightly larger than that of a proton. With the exception of hydrogen, nuclei of atoms consist of protons and neutrons, which are therefore collectively referred to as nucleons. The number of...

 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 that it would receive over the lifetime of a power reactor. They also took over commercial isotope
Isotopes are variants of atoms of a particular chemical element, which have differing numbers of neutrons. Atoms of a particular element by definition must contain the same number of protons but may have a distinct number of neutrons which differs from atom to atom, without changing the designation...

 production from BEPO after that was shut down. DIDO and PLUTO 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
ZETA, short for "Zero-Energy Toroidal Assembly", was a major experiment in the early history of fusion power research. It was the ultimate device in a series of UK designs using the Z-pinch confinement technique, and the first large-scale fusion machine to be built...

 fusion power
Fusion power
Fusion power is the power generated by nuclear fusion processes. In fusion reactions two light atomic nuclei fuse together to form a heavier nucleus . In doing so they release a comparatively large amount of energy arising from the binding energy due to the strong nuclear force which is manifested...

 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
Timeline of nuclear fusion
Timeline of significant events in the study and use of nuclear fusion:*1929 - Atkinson and Houtermans used the measured masses of low-mass elements and applied Einstein's discovery that E=mc2 to predict that large amounts of energy could be released by fusing small nuclei together .*1932 - Mark...


Organisational history

In 1954 AERE was incorporated into the newly formed United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority
United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority
The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority is a UK government research organisation responsible for the development of nuclear fusion power. It is an executive non-departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and was formerly chaired by Lady Barbara Judge CBE...

 (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 (DTI).

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
Trading Fund
A trading fund is a UK executive agency, government department or part of a department, which has been established as such by means of a Trading Fund Order made under the Government Trading Funds Act 1973....

 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
AEA Technology
AEA Technology plc was formed in 1996 as the privatised offshoot of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. It is a constituent of the FTSE Fledgling Index. Originally it consisted of divisions with expertise in a wide variety of areas, mostly the products of nuclear-related research...

 and floated on the London Stock Exchange
London Stock Exchange
The London Stock Exchange is a stock exchange located in the City of London within the United Kingdom. , the Exchange had a market capitalisation of US$3.7495 trillion, making it the fourth-largest stock exchange in the world by this measurement...

. 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 site incorporates the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is one of the national scientific research laboratories in the UK operated by the Science and Technology Facilities Council . It is located on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus at Chilton near Didcot in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom...

 which is home to the Science and Technology Facilities Council (including the ISIS neutron source
ISIS neutron source
ISIS is a pulsed neutron and muon source. It is situated at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom and is part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council...

 and Diamond Light Source
Diamond Light Source
Diamond Light Source is the UK's national synchrotron science facility in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom. Its purpose is to produce intense beams of light whose special characteristics are useful in many areas of scientific research...

). In 2006, the name Harwell Science and Innovation Campus
Harwell Science and Innovation Campus
The Harwell Science and Innovation Campus is a science and technology campus near the villages of Harwell and Chilton, Oxfordshire, England. The site is about south of Oxford...

 was introduced. In February 2009, part of the campus, the remaining nuclear licensed site, passed to Research Sites Restoration Limited (RSRL), who are decommissioning the site on behalf of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority
Nuclear Decommissioning Authority
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is a non-departmental public body of the United Kingdom formed by the Energy Act 2004. It came into existence in late 2004, and took on its main functions on 1 April 2005...

. The management of the wider campus was transferred to the Goodman Group
Goodman Group
Goodman Group is an Australian integrated industrial property development and management company.The organisation was founded in 1989 as a private property trust focused on industrial properties, listing on the Australian Stock Exchange in 1995 as Goodman Hardie Industrial Property Trust...

, an international property group.

See also

  • Atomic Weapons Establishment
    Atomic Weapons Establishment
    The Atomic Weapons Establishment is responsible for the design, manufacture and support of warheads for the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent. AWE plc is responsible for the day-to-day operations of AWE...

  • Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment
  • Harwell CADET
    Harwell CADET
    The Harwell CADET was the first fully transistorised computer in Europe, and may have been the first fully transistorised computer in the world....

    , an early transistorised computer
  • Harwell Synchrocyclotron
    Harwell Synchrocyclotron
    The Harwell Synchrocyclotron was a particle accelerator based at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment campus near Harwell, Oxfordshire. Construction of the accelerator began in 1946 and it was completed in 1949. The machine was of the synchrocyclotron design, with a 1.62T magnet of diameter...

    , an early accelerator based in AERE Hangar 7
  • JET
    Joint European Torus
    JET, the Joint European Torus, is the largest magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment worldwide currently in operation. Its main purpose is to open the way to future nuclear fusion experimental tokamak reactors such as ITER and :DEMO....

     fusion reactor
  • List of nuclear reactors
  • WITCH (computer)
    WITCH (computer)
    The Harwell computer, later known as the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computing from Harwell , or the Harwell Dekatron Computer, was an early British relay-based computer...

    , an early Dekatron
    In electronics, a Dekatron is a gas-filled decade counting tube. Dekatrons were used in computers, calculators and other counting-related products during the 1950s and 1960s...

    -based computer constructed at Harwell and donated to computer science in the late 1950s

External links