Sir Alan Cottrell: Government's Scientific Adviser who worked to establish safe nuclear power

 

For some 70 years the impact of Sir Alan Cottrell's work on the basic understanding of materials and its application to engineering structures, his academic leadership, his role of Scientific Adviser to the Government, and his contributions to safe nuclear energy, have been immense. He was the most influential physical metallurgist of the 20th century. Through his pioneering researches, and as an educator, he influenced countless students, scientists and engineers and will continue to do so. His papers and books are remarkable for their clarity.

Alan Howard Cottrell was born in Birmingham in 1919, attended Moseley Grammar School and then read metallurgy at Birmingham University, graduating in 1939. He was put on war work, introduced to a serious problem of cracking of armour plating of tanks at electric arc welds, which he solved.

He was made Lecturer in 1943, and in his course "Theoretical Structural Metallurgy" (the basis of a classic book), he discussed the structure and properties of metals in terms of the behaviour of atoms and electrons. This course helped transform a hitherto rather qualitative subject into a quantitative discipline, and was an important step in achieving his ambition to transform metallurgy into materials science. He was a brilliant lecturer, conveying complex phenomena in simple terms.

After the war Cottrell started research on the plastic properties of metals. In a series of penetrating and elegant studies he showed how certain crystal defects called dislocations (through their interactions with impurities) determine some important features in the ductile behaviour of structural steels, and how their mutual interactions control hardening of metals by cold working. In 1953 he published another influential book, Dislocations and Plastic Flow in Metals. He was given a personal Professorship in 1949 and in 1955 was elected to The Royal Society at 35.

In 1955 he became Deputy Head of the Metallurgy Division at Harwell. One of his pioneering researches there, on creep of uranium under neutron irradiation, led to a redesign of the fuel rods in Magnox civil nuclear reactors. His study on the hardening and embrittlement of steel by neutron irradiation has a direct bearing on the integrity of pressure vessels in nuclear reactors. In October 1957 a reactor at Windscale caught fire during a gentle heating to anneal damage in the graphite core, causing a national emergency. Cottrell set up a new laboratory in two weeks; he and his team were able to give an assurance that the Magnox reactors would be immune to this self-heating effect.

In 1958 he became Head of Metallurgy at Cambridge, transforming the department into a world-class institution, bringing in new people and equipment, teaching the subject from the atomic point of view and starting new research projects. His own researches focussed firstly on the brittle fracture of structural steel at freezing temperatures, responsible for many accidents on ships and bridges, and secondly, with Anthony Kelly, on the physics of fibrous composites. This led to new materials such as fibreglass and carbon fibre.

His work on fracture included the development of the theory of elastic-plastic cracks, the elucidation of the basic processes of failure at the tip of a sharp notch, and a theory of cleavage cracking in iron. These were important advances in understanding and in ensuring structural integrity.

In 1964 Cottrell became Sir Solly Zuckerman's deputy at the Ministry of Defence. Although reluctant to leave the university, he had become concerned with the need to invigorate British manufacturing through technology, and felt Whitehall was the place to do this. Working on Denis Healey's defence review, Cottrell led studies on the problems, in particular the cost, of a military presence in the Near and Far East. This led to the abandonment of the government's East of Suez policy.

In 1966 he followed Zuckerman to the Cabinet Office as Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser. He tackled various problems with scientific aspects, including the brain drain, environment and pollution, the Advanced Passenger Train and the Torrey Canyon oil spill.

In 1971 Cottrell became Chief Scientific Adviser, his position complicated by the arrival of Victor Rothschild and his Central Policy Review staff. Cottrell became involved in a proposal to make the work of the Research Councils more related to national needs while retaining their independence, which led to the controversial "Customer-Contractor" principle, under which government departments could commission research from the Research Councils. He was not comfortable with the machinations of Whitehall; he played it straight, and used his intellect to make his case, however unpopular.

In 1974 Cottrell expressed his concern to the Select Committee on Science and Technology about the integrity of the steel reactor pressure vessel, which is critical to the safety of the Pressurised Water Reactor, promoted by Walter Marshall, in the civil nuclear programme. Marshall set up a committee, and in the early 1980s, following the Marshall Report, Cottrell agreed that provided certain conditions were satisfied a sufficiently robust safety case could be established.

The Report, with Cottrell's endorsement, had a major impact on the Sizewell B inquiry and on getting Nuclear Installation Inspectorate approval, and led to major advances in the requirements for ensuring the integrity of pressure vessels and other large structures. Cottrell believed that nuclear energy was an important source of power, but also felt the public should be able to form a rational view, so he set out the facts in simple terms in How Safe is Nuclear Energy? (1981).

In 1974 Cottrell became Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, glad to return full-time to his family and academic life. He supervised a major revision of the College Statutes and prepared for the admission of women. He was Vice Chancellor for two years, from 1977, introducing the new Chancellor, Prince Philip, to the intricacies of the university's operation. He also prepared for the arrival of Prince Edward as an undergraduate. In 1986 he retired, returned to the Metallurgy Department, and researched the application of modern electron theory of metals to metallurgical problems, such as embrittlement of metals by certain impurities. In 1988 he published the excellent Introduction to the Modern Theory of Metals, followed by Chemical Bonding in Transition Metal Carbides.

From 1996 he cared full-time for his wife Jean, who suffered from Parkinson's disease; she died in 1999. During the last few years he published again on the plasticity of metals. Cottrell was a kind, gentle, sensitive and supportive person, modest, with a sense of humour and a brilliant intellect. Among his many awards and honorary degrees was the highest award of the Royal Society, the Copley Medal, in 1996; he was the first metallurgist to receive the Medal since it was instituted in 1731.

Peter Hirsch

In the years 1965 to 1974, when he occupied positions giving advice to government, both on defence and then across the board in Whitehall, Alan Cottrell was a frequent and welcome speaker and contributor at the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee and willingly accepted our invitations to working/discussion dinners after his presentations, writes Tam Dalyell. When, as honorary secretary I thanked him for coming on one occasion, he replied half joking, and wholly in earnest, "it is one of my duties to educate you politicians in military and scientific issues."

And he did educate us. When I mentioned to Denis Healey, then his "boss", as Secretary of State for Defence, what Cottrell had said, he snorted, "You aren't the only ones he educates – Alan educates me too, and Fred Mulley" (then Healey's deputy at Defence). In 1977 Dr John Kendrew FRS, Nobel Prize-winner for chemistry in 1962, and part-time scientific adviser for the Ministry of Defence from 1960 to 1963, reflected to me, "I only wish I had as much influence on government as Alan Cottrell." Cottrell was indeed a powerful influence – for the good.

Alan Howard Cottrell, physical metallurgist: born Birmingham 17 July 1919; Kt 1971; married 1944 Jean Harber (died 1999; one son, one adopted daughter); died 15 February 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
John Rees-Evans is standing for Ukip in Cardiff South and Penarth
news
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
Sport
David Silva, Andy Carroll, Arsene Wenger and Radamel Falcao
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photo Booth Host

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company offers London's best photo booth ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers



£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers ...

Recruitment Genius: Project Director / Operations Director

£50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an incredible opportunity for a ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Administrator is requir...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'