Canberra UK Ltd is located 10 miles south of the Oxford, on a nuclear licenced site owned by the Nuclear Decomissioning Agency (NDA). Prior to this, the land was owned by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Agency and the company was part of this group for many years using the name Harwell Instruments – a well-known and respected name within the nuclear industry in the UK.
The site and surrounding area has a long and varied history. Crossing the northern end of the site is one of the four “Royal Roads” of England which was long ago granted an important and particular status. It was stated that if anyone killed or assaulted another on one these roads, they broke the King’s peace. Another section of the site linked with the Royal Roads was a favoured place for wool trading and is known historically as “The Golden Mile”. It is said that William III camped on the Golden Mile while travelling to London to ascend to the throne of England in 1688.
Prior to becoming a nuclear licenced site, the land was owned by a racehorse trainer/breeder. In 1935, the government made a compulsorily purchase order and built an airfield knowing that Britain would soon be at war. By 1938, 500 airmen were station at Harwell and the airfield played a significant part in the outcome of WWII, not only from the bombing raids but also with the testing of military inventions. One such was the Harwell Box which was used to train wireless operators prior to taking to the air. Gunners were also trained to quickly follow a moving light projected onto a ceiling to improve their reaction times. Navigators learned to fly by the stars with the construction of modern day planetariums in windowless towers.
The Ministry of Supply took over RAF Harwell for Britain’s secret nuclear research project on 1 January 1946. Europe’s first nuclear reactor was built inside an aircraft hangar. Britain became the first in the world to operate nuclear power stations as Harwell scientists pursued dreams of caging the Sun’s power, developing reactors the bred more fuel than they consumed and assembling the first transistorised computer. There were 14 different reactors built at Harwell, ranging from zero-energy dustbin sized ones to 25 megawatt materials testing reactors the size of a three storey house. The first reactor to be built at Harwell, GLEEP, was the first reactor to be built in Western Europe and was the last reactor to be shut down at Harwell, showing that often it is the simplest ideas that have the longest duration. GLEEP ran faultlessly for 43 years.
The discovery of North Sea oil pricked the nuclear bubble but one man, Walter Marshall, directed Harwell into marketing their science to industry and to translate nuclear know-how to benefit high street goods. Scientists at Harwell have helped date the Turin Shroud, kept Big Ben ticking, analysed the first pinch of moon dust and developed plutonium powered heart pacemakers. In 1996, Harwell campus was relaunched as an international business centre for science and technology comprising a variety of high technology companies such as Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (space laboratory) and the Diamond Light Source (synchrotron).
Canberra UK was originally part of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority coming into existence in the 1960’s. As the nuclear industry grew exponentially in the UK over the following decades, so did the requirement for reliable instrumentation. Harwell was at the forefront of radiation detection and produced some of the very first instruments and radiation detection techniques still in use today. All types of gamma monitors, neutron monitors and contamination monitors were invented and adopted throughout the UK nuclear industry with Harwell’s 2000 Series and the Later 6000 Series module systems proving particularly popular. In the late 1970’s and 1980’s, Harwell became known for its ability to supply bespoke NDA systems, particulate-in-air monitors and gamma monitors. With instruments such as the 3230-2 Beta Monitor, the 3280-2 Alpha monitors and the 0740-2 Gamma monitor being used as the instruments of choice UK wide. In the 1990’s Harwell Instruments also produced the GM Pulse Counting System “RADCount” that was supplied and funded by a Government backed scheme to hundreds of schools and colleges in the UK. These instruments paved the way for the current modern range available as part of the CANBERRA family, iCAM Particulate in air Monitor and the G64 Gamma monitor.
Additional background from a lecture by HWB Skinner dated 9/20/1947
“… The next group of projects to be considered are those associated with the piles- the measuring instruments for radioactive radiation (sic). These are ionization chambers and Geiger-Mueller counters. The ionization chambers are used for pile control and for general monitoring of weaker radioactive radiation in the buildings. The counters are used for the investigation of weaker radioactive radiation. These instruments form an essential part of the equipment, and a great deal of work has been put into them. Much of it has been done in Chalk River.
In Harwell, we have set up a group working on counters and ion chambers: In Malvern we have a strong electronics group and we also have a small one in Harwell. The Maverm group has been responsible for the development of scalers for use with the counters and amplifiers for use with the ion chambers. Many more specialized problems also arise. A number of types of health instruments have to be developed. For example, one of these is a hand monitor for making sure that workers who have handled radioactive substances have no residual activity left on their hands. Besides this, a number of instruments are being developed which are of great assistance in radiochemical work where a large amount of routine counting is required.”
Question: 1) What was the relationship between Harwell and Chalk River?
Answer: Recently Jonathan Coleman, who knows everything, told me that the British shifted some nuclear research activities to Chalk River, just in case the Nazis prevailed in Europe.
Of Interest: By Orren Tench
1) Klaus Fuchs, the famous Russian spy, was head of the Theoretical Physics Division at AERE, Harwell before he was exposed. He had earlier worked at key nuclear research facilities in the US.
2) John Howes, a scientist who had a long career at Harwell, dating back to the WW 11 era, had friends at Yale University and visited there often. Somehow we got to know John, and he came to see Orren Tench and Mike Yocum on these visits. John was full of knowledge and enthusiasm for product development and he encouraged us to expand our product line. In fact the LEGe Detector innovation benefited directly from his input.
On one of these visits, he also visited IBM, where the son of one of his Yale friends worked. There he saw a prototype of the IBM PC, and he told us all about it months ahead of its introduction.