The Story of How Britain Got Nuclear Weapons

June 10, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWarBritish EmpireBritain

The Story of How Britain Got Nuclear Weapons

The British Empire was the first nation to seriously investigate nuclear explosives.

However, the price was higher than anyone imagined. The frantic pace of production at Windscale and the shortcuts taken caught up with the operators. The graphite making up the bulk of a factory at Windscale overheated and caught fire. Fuel elements stuck in the holes bored in the graphite and ingested the graphite. As a result, smoke carried the plutonium particles up the 400-foot-tall chimneys and out over the English countryside.

Huge filters installed on the smokestacks, called "Cockcroft's Follies" by skeptics after the man who ordered them installed, prevented far worse contamination. For two days the reactor operators tried to contain the blaze and only succeeded when they shut off the cooling fans. The air-cooled reactors turned out to be as dangerous as water-cooled ones.

The October 10, 1957 accident could not have come at a worse time for Britain. Prime Minister MacMillan was banking on his personal relationship with President Eisenhower and sought to renew the "special relationship." Now he had an H-bomb in his pocket and could bargain as an equal—but not if the Americans learned how close Britain had come to nuclear disaster. The Windscale accident was suppressed, the operators of the reactors were smeared, and MacMillan got his renewed cooperation with Eisenhower.

The following month Britain finalized its home-grown deterrent with its two most significant nuclear tests. Grapple Shot Y produced a full two megatons, enough to obliterate Moscow and all its suburbs. Shot Z on September 2, 1958, was an all-up simulated nuclear attack—an RAF Valiant bomber using blind radar bombing run dropped its three-megaton bomb from 45,000 feet onto a spot less than 100 feet from its target.

Finally, with Grapple Shot Halliard on September 11, 1958, British independent nuclear testing came to an end. The first fruits of renewed cooperation between the U.S. and the UK were the receipt of America's most sophisticated nuclear weapons designs at Aldermaston and the exchanges between British and American weaponeers. The British adopted the American designs and have coordinated their atomic enterprise with America's ever since. For decades until the end of Western nuclear testing in 1992 British and American scientists have worked closely together, with the Brits even testing their bombs under the Nevada desert.


There would be additional tests of the special relationship, notably the Skybolt debacle in the early 1960s, but the two nations have worked together for over fifty years. If the Bomb is to be with the world for a while, it helps America have friends with the Bomb, and perhaps Americans should treat their friends better.

Steve Weintz, a frequent contributor to many publications such as WarIsBoring, is a writer, filmmaker, artist and animator.

ImagePicture of an atomic bomb explosion. From FEMA (U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency) publicity poster. The caption read: "Disasters are devastating to the natural and man-made environment. FEMA provides federal aid and assistance to those who have been affected by all types of disaster. FEMA News Photo. Wikimedia Commons