Ross Hesketh

'Whistle-blower' sacked for exposing civil-military nuclear links
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ross Vernon Hesketh, physicist: born Codnor, Derbyshire 5 April 1929; Research Fellow, Glasgow University 1956-59; Research Officer, Berkeley Nuclear Laboratories 1959-64 (seconded to Dounreay Nuclear Establishment 1959-62), Research Head, Radiation Damage 1964-66, Research Head, Solid State Physics 1966-83; Director, European Proliferation Information Centre 1984; Professor of Physics, Bayero University, Kano 1985-88; Lecturer, Sultan Qaboos University 1989-91; married 1956 Elva Turner (two sons, two daughters); died Lower Stone, Gloucestershire 3 April 2004.

The physicist Ross Hesketh was a many-faceted character, a Quaker, music lover and peace campaigner. He is best known as the "whistle-blower" who was sacked from the Central Electricity Generating Board's Berkeley Nuclear Laboratories in 1983 for exposing the links between the United Kingdom civil and military nuclear programmes.

Hesketh was one of a select few who managed to get Margaret Thatcher to change her government's line. His efforts to publicise the implications of the Mutual Defence Agreements (MDA) between the United Kingdom and United States governments have topical relevance in the year in which they are up for renewal.

To close friends and family Ross Hesketh was a humorous and genuinely good and courageous man. He was also a very private individual. How many of his scientific colleagues, or those of us who worked with him through the night during the Sizewell Inquiry, were aware of his passion for making and playing viols? Though he did not seek the limelight, his determination not to see truth compromised led him to speak out, reluctantly, when government and nuclear industry attempted to rewrite history in the early 1980s. The same uncompromising approach drove him to pursue unfashionable lines of scientific research. It also impelled him to write many letters to the press in his uniquely erudite style in support of a just and fairer world.

Hesketh was born in 1929 in Codnor, Derbyshire, where his parents kept a grocery shop. From Heanor Grammar School he went to King's College, Durham, where he read Physics, and took a PhD. He learnt to cope with adversity early in his scientific career when he spent a year as a Base Leader for the Falkland Islands Dependency Survey (the future British Antarctic Survey) in 1955-56. After three years as a research fellow at Glasgow University, he was offered a job by the CEGB at its research laboratories at Berkeley, in Gloucestershire.

He worked for Berkeley Nuclear Laboratories from 1959 to 1983, initially seconded to Dounreay, in Caithness. From 1964 he was Research Head, Radiation Damage, and from 1966 Research Head, Solid State Physics. This was a time of major development for both the UK nuclear weapons programme and civil nuclear power.

The first civil nuclear reactors which were built at Berkeley and coastal locations round the UK were based on the Calder Hall Magnox reactors which produced plutonium for nuclear weapons. The CEGB's Magnox stations had a crucial difference. They could be refuelled "on-load" without shutting down the reactor. Hence low-burn-up plutonium, of particular importance to the military, would be extracted in the early years of operation.

When the first MDA between the UK and US governments was signed in 1958 it was already clear that the UK would have something to offer the US in return for the Polaris submarines and nuclear material required by the UK, namely copious amounts of low-burn-up plutonium. The public knew little about the MDA and nothing of the fact that throughout the 1960s the plutonium from Magnox reactors like that at Berkeley was being shipped to the US.

Over a decade later, in the early 1980s, the US under President Ronald Reagan was expanding its nuclear-weapon capability. There was talk of a plutonium shortage and questions were being asked about where the US had obtained its plutonium in earlier years. However, the international climate had changed. Now the US and UK were promoting the Non-Proliferation Treaty that aimed to separate civil and military nuclear activities. Both industry and government decided that it would be politic to deny any such links. A number of "categorical assurances" were given by the then Conservative government to Parliament in the early 1980s, exemplified by that of the Energy minister John Moore in February 1983 - "No plutonium produced in the UK civil reactors has ever been consigned for defence use or exported for defence use."

Hesketh first spoke of his concerns in a letter to The Times in October 1981 when it appeared possible that the UK was about to supply plutonium to the Reagan administration. In early 1983 he presented a paper questioning the past separation of civil and military nuclear activities at a conference on the future of nuclear power. He was sacked by the publicly owned CEGB a few months later. He then worked tirelessly to expose the details of the MDA, the limitations of safeguards in the UK and the history of the early civil-military nuclear links.

The inquiry into the first UK Pressurised Water Reactor at Sizewell in 1983-84 provided an opportunity to prise information from the Government and the nuclear industry. As a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament Sizewell Working Group, Hesketh uncovered details of the plutonium accountancy procedures at Sellafield then operated by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL). The group's efforts established that the Magnox reprocessing line at Sellafield co-processed low-burn-up plutonium from the civil and military reactors at the same time.

They also established that Euratom, the relevant safeguards authority, had been concerned for many years about this practice of co-processing, particularly as it meant they were denied access to the line. The group obtained an admission from BNFL that their phrase "military plutonium", used at the inquiry, did not, as might be expected if safeguards were the priority, describe its origin in a military reactor but rather its end use. One of the Sizewell Inspector's 13 recommendations was given over to the CND concerns on plutonium accountancy.

When the "categorical assurances" were next addressed in Parliament in 1986, they had changed very significantly. Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, repeated the statement that civil plutonium had not gone into weapons, adding the important qualification "during the period of the current administration". The earlier "categorical assurances" were therefore invalid for the period prior to 1979 when the UK civil reactors were producing significant amounts of weapons-grade plutonium and this, and other civil plutonium, was being shipped to the US under the MDA.

Though this was an admission that Hesketh was correct, government and the nuclear industry had clearly decided that the new line was as far as they were prepared to go. Subsequent attempts to get the Government to clarify their change of tack, for example by CND at the Hinkley Point C Inquiry in 1988-89, were unsuccessful.

The current Labour government also refuses to explain why the "categorical assurances" can no longer be made. Attempts to ask what happened to the plutonium from the early years of the civil programme are met by the same irrelevant response that plutonium has not gone into weapons during the "period of the current administration".

This refusal to clarify past history has led to some bizarre situations. In 2000, as part of the Strategic Defence Review, the Ministry of Defence commendably attempted to follow the US lead by publishing figures on the UK military plutonium stockpile. It was forced to make the embarrassing admission that "the weapon cycle stockpile is in fact some 0.3 tonnes larger than the amount of plutonium the records indicate as available". This extra weapons-grade plutonium that the MoD classifies as "from Unidentified Sites" is enough for about 60 warheads. It has been shown to be just the amount that was produced by the civil Magnox reactors in their early years.

There are other reasons why this issue is as relevant today as when first raised by Ross Hesketh. The MDA is currently up for renewal and the public should be able to assess its past performance before it is renegotiated. Furthermore, both the US and UK governments are trying to convince countries such as Iran and North Korea that they should not have secret agreements with existing nuclear weapon states. They are also being urged to provide information to ensure that their civil nuclear activities have no weapons implications. Given such government hypocrisy, the need for "whistle-blowers" like Hesketh is as important as ever.

In the mid-1980s Hesketh survived by becoming a teacher. From 1985 to 1988 he was Professor of Physics at Bayero University in the northern Nigerian city of Kano. For four years he ran the Science Faculty as well as teaching; and was much loved by his Nigerian students. Never ones to take the easy way out, Ross and his wife Elva travelled back from Nigeria across the Sahara by public transport - taxis, local buses and trucks. From 1989 to 1991 he taught at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Oman.

It says much about Ross Hesketh, and his commitment to challenging accepted wisdom, that his final scientific project was to complete a textbook entitled A Less Erroneous Kinetic Theory of Gases describing his original approach to this rather neglected area of physics. The preface is typical of the man:

On 23rd October 2003, the surgeon told me that the newly discovered Klatskin tumour inside me is incurable, and too far developed to be excised. He indicated a time-scale, with margins, of the order of six months. The information focuses my attempt to complete the text of this book. In dramatic fashion, it also points up a central thesis: the independence of the life expectancy function from the creation function.

Hesketh completed the text, supervised the production of the manuscript at a local print-shop and died two days later.

Keith Barnham

Comments