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Atomic Atonement

On the 70th anniversary of the report which led to the development of the atomic bomb, can the UK take the lead again, this time in pioneering nuclear disarmament?

Seventy years ago, scientists working in Britain produced a highly significant secret report that showed a viable atomic bomb could be constructed. Transmitted to Washington in early October 1941, the Maud Committee’s report galvanized US atomic efforts.[1] Without it, the Manhattan Project would probably have started later, if at all, and it is unlikely that the bomb would have been ready for use in the summer of 1945—in which case the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have happened, and the subsequent East-West conflict might have evolved differently.

This singular British contribution to world history is largely absent from the national and international memory. Although hardly an achievement to be celebrated, it deserves public reflection. It also invites the thought that Britain might play as special a part in ending the nuclear age as it did in beginning it. The country that essentially invented the nuclear weapon—and bears some political and moral responsibility for the consequences—might become the first country to remove such weapons from its military arsenal, setting a new example.[2] Short of that, it could take a more emphatic lead in demonstrating how to prepare for complete nuclear disarmament.

In late 1939 and early 1940, scientific papers had been published in Germany and elsewhere showing that uranium atoms could be fissioned and that chain reactions might be induced, possibly resulting in explosive releases of energy. It was believed nevertheless that a useful weapon could not be made because tons of material would be required, making it too cumbersome. This was incorrect. Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, refugees from Nazi Germany working at Birmingham University, calculated that only kilograms would be needed if a critical mass of uranium enriched in its scarce fissile isotope could be assembled.

Their private memorandum to the British government led to the formation of the Maud Committee in April 1940. Comprised of distinguished scientists, the committee oversaw a research project tasked with confirming the Frisch-Peierls conjecture and demonstrating that uranium could be enriched and a functional bomb manufactured. Small teams at Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, and London universities, as well as Imperial College and the firm Imperial Chemical Industries, worked secretly together over the next fifteen months. The resulting “Maud Report” concluded that an atomic bomb of enormous power could and should be made; there was urgency because German scientists might have reached the same conclusion.

A project to develop and manufacture atomic bombs could not be mounted in the United Kingdom, which lacked resources and was vulnerable to German aerial bombardment. Collaboration with the United States was essential. The Maud Report’s transmission across the Atlantic in the fall of 1941 invigorated a hitherto lackluster and uncoordinated US research effort. The massive Manhattan Project was launched in February 1942, spurred also by the declaration of war against Japan and Germany in December 1941. British scientists quickly found themselves sidelined as the United States took the lead and effectively nationalized the new field of technology. This is one reason why Britain’s vital early role has been underplayed.

The first atomic device was exploded in a secret test in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945; less than a month later two bombs were hastily assembled and dropped on Japan. In her magisterial history of Britain’s early involvement in atomic research, Margaret Gowing observed that “without the work of the Maud Committee … the Second World War might well have ended before an atomic bomb was dropped.”[3] Historians also agree that the shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki encouraged Joseph Stalin to launch a Soviet crash program to match the Americans, heralding the Cold War’s nuclear arms race.

In the dark days of 1941, there was compelling reason for wanting an atomic bomb. Today, Britain’s possession of a nuclear arsenal cannot be easily justified. Plenty of voices across politics, the military, and civil society now say that it costs too much, that national survival does not demand it, that it does little for national prestige, and that other capabilities are required in a new era of warfare.[4] Advocates of the nuclear Trident system’s retention and replacement argue that Britain would give away treasure without international reward or effect if it abolished its nuclear force ahead of the other nuclear weapon states. But is this true? It would become the first fully fledged nuclear weapon state to have taken this step, and the first to honor in full the provisions of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. It would set an important precedent whose catalytic effects are probably underestimated.

Turning a nuclear weapon state into a non-nuclear weapon state would also entail development of novel technical, legal and other measures. In 2007, the UK government proposed that Britain should become a “disarmament laboratory” to help prepare ground for the eventual multilateral elimination of nuclear weapons. Valuable work has since been done, recently in cooperation with Norway. However, the project’s scope has been confined to techniques for verifying that warheads have been dismantled. Wide ranging inquiry has been prevented by the decision to retain and modernize the British nuclear force and by the desire not to embarrass or invite the scorn of the French, US, and other members of the nuclear club.

Besides setting a precedent, Britain therefore has the opportunity—if it decides that Trident is no longer worth the candle—to pioneer nuclear disarmament. On the Maud Report’s seventieth anniversary, there is an appealing symmetry to this idea. Britain established the world’s first nuclear armament laboratory. Now it could provide the first genuine nuclear disarmament laboratory, as an act of atonement and a step away from the dangerous nuclear-armed world that it helped to create.


[1] Two explanations of the Maud Committee’s title have been offered: ‘Maud’ was either an acronym for Military Application of Uranium Detonation, or the name of Danish physicist Niels Bohr’s children’s former governess (although Bohr played no part in the Committee’s formation or research). Lacking direct evidence, neither story can be confirmed.
[2] That Britain played a crucial part in the bomb’s invention is not to deny that the main technological innovations involved in its development, manufacture, and delivery occurred in the United States. Although South Africa’s nuclear disarmament around 1990 involved the dismantlement of nuclear explosive devices, it had not developed the arsenals, strategies and institutions of an established nuclear weapon state.
[3] Margaret Gowing, Britain and Atomic Energy, 1939–1945 (London: Macmillan & Co., 1964), p. 85.
[4] There is also the real possibility that Scotland, where Trident is based (no British nuclear weapons are deployed in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland), will attain independence well within Trident’s lifetime and press for the weapon system’s removal from its territory. Relocation elsewhere in the United Kingdom is politically and economically impossible.