In late 1944 a plan for an atomic energy research establishment in England began to emerge, as the home of our scientists on their return from the wartime Anglo-French-Canadian atomic laboratory in Montreal. In bomb-damaged Britain the only means of getting a flying start for such an establishment was to take over a major airfield with its engineering workshops, roads, water supply and above all large hangars for large nuclear machines. It was judged at the time that the airfield had to be near the universities of either Oxford or Cambridge. Cambridgeshire sites were ruled out for one reason or another and the final choice lay between Benson and Harwell. The Station Commander at Benson argued convincingly that his site was too near a considerable number of houses; so the Downs above Harwell were chosen. The Air Ministry handed over on 1st January 1946.
The first Director of A.E.R.E. or Harwell, as it has come to be known, was Sir John Cockcroft, formerly director at Montreal. At the outset the establishment had no terms of reference other than the blueprint in his mind. This was to cover the whole nuclear fuel cycle from prospecting instruments for uranium through the production of uranium hexafluoride and metal to the handling of spent reactor fuel, and to isotopes for industry and medicine. Fifty per cent of the effort was to be basic research, and fifty per cent was to support power production research. The Government struggled to organise an overall nuclear programme which covered the research at Harwell, the work at the engineering establishments in the north and the weapons organisation which was about to be sited at Aldermaston. The whole complex was put under the control of the Atomic Energy Authority in 1954.
With the adoption of the first nuclear power programme in 1955, boosted in 1956-57 by the Suez crisis, A.E.R.E. grew to a total strength of over 6,000 workers spread over nearly 100 buildings. The site was becoming unwieldy and in quick succession, the National Institute for Research in Nuclear Sciences (now Science & Engineering Research Council) on the adjacent site in Chilton, a new reactor site at Winfrith in Dorset and a fusion establishment at Culham were formed.
By 1959 the United Kingdom nuclear power programme was slowed down, as it did not have the lead over coal and oil which had been expected. For the remaining programme, engineering effort was wanted, rather than more basic science. An act of Parliament allowed A.E.R.E. to diversify into some non-nuclear research, but further Government cuts in 1970 made A.E.R.E. attempt to get more work from commercial firms. The then Director, Walter Marshall (later Chairman of the C.E.G.B.) set about this and by 1974 achieved what had seemed to be impossible goals in selling science for hard cash. Manpower on the site was stabilised at over 4,000 and rose back to 4,500 by 1980. Major contracts secured have ranged from robot inspection of the country’s natural gas pipelines to the radiographic inspection of jet engines, and from the automatic sensing of defects on railway track to desalination in Hong Kong.
The Atomic Energy Research Establishment has had an enormous effect on its surrounding area. From 1931 to 1951 the population in nearby villages nearly doubled, while those further afield in Berkshire and Oxfordshire fell. There was almost the same rate of growth in Wantage and Abingdon. By 1985 A.E.R.E. was drawing its work force from towns up to twenty miles away; the whole of this area was covered by its own bus service that brought in one third of the workers. Total annual expenditure on the site was more than £90 million, of which £50 million comes from sales, mostly of research and development. It was one of the largest, if not the largest, research establishment in Europe.
Professor Skinner, one of the first senior scientists at A.E.R.E. commented upon the prefabs in verse (with apologies to Goldsmith):
Foul Harwell, ugliest village of the downs,
Where labs and aluminium prefabs sprout
And houses camouflaged in green and brown
Their military architecture shout.