The Harwell Incident

Thursday September 9, 1999 - spookily 9/9/99 - the day we were supposed to see some pre-Year 2000 computer problems.  The south Oxfordshire countryside narrowly missed being showered with radioactive fallout, but 99.9% of the local population don't know anything about it.  Why?

What is Harwell and where is it?

Harwell is a village in south Oxfordshire, England. 

The village is home to the nearby Rutherford Laboratory (RL), a civilian scientific research institution (rl.ac.uk).  Rutherford Labs carries out research in particle physics amongst other things.  

The RL site is also home to the Harwell Business Centre, the National Chemical Emergency Centre and a more sinister organisation, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). The AEA facility is known as Harwell Labs, but this is not advertised anywhere.

The gate to the site is manned by the UKAEA Police - giving away the high-security nature of the establishment.  Anyone attempting to find out what goes on at Harwell Labs will be met with a wall of silence.  It is extraordinarily difficult to find any detail about the site.

In fact, Harwell has always been a covert location.  The original owners of the site were the AEA and the site used to be known as RAF Harwell. 

The site was used to develop the first British nuclear weapons, under the control of Ministry of Defence after World War II.  However, as far as the public are concerned, all weapons grade material and research is housed at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston in Berkshire some 25 miles away.  Today, the public are only aware of the RAL work on the Harwell site.

The UKAEA facilities at Harwell labs are used for research into decommissioning nuclear power plants.  Work on weapons, or weapon components, though suspected by many, has been vigorously denied by the authorities.

Location of RAL and Harwell Labs

So what happened?

On the afternoon of Thursday September 9, 1999, an experiment, involving a number of radioactive elements, produced an unexpected and highly explosive by-product called Silver Picrate.  This chemical escaped into free-air within Section 220 of the Harwell Labs.  The alarm was raised and the building sealed, with Harwell Labs employees being evacuated at around 17:00 (5:00 pm).

Silver Picrate, UN 1347, though not technically an explosive, if allowed to dry out (<30% water) becomes extremely unstable. In this situation, there is a high risk of detonation if the chemical is subjected to shock or friction. A US Department of Transport guide book suggests that in the event of a spillage of Silver Picrate, an area of 800m around the spillage should be evacuated.

There was an extremely high risk of the Silver Picrate exploding and blowing the roof off the building.  Had this happened the radioactive elements could have become airborne, with the fallout showering the surrounding area.

Experts from the UKAEA research and experimental reactor facility at Dounreay, near Thurso in Scotland, were flown to Harwell in the dead of night.  Their job was to avert disaster and make the situation safe.  Meanwhile at Harwell, Army bomb disposal teams arrived on the scene, as did a number of local fire appliances, supplementing the on-site fire unit.


From the site, news of the situation was passed up through the UKAEA chain of command.   The situation was so serious, with such a high risk to public health, that advice was sought from Whitehall, seat of the UK Government. 

At Whitehall, the decision was made to keep a news-blackout on the situation at Harwell.  But not before at least one news broadcast, an early morning (Friday 10th) Central TV local news transmission, revealed that something was happening at the site.   The report gave few details, it simply mentioned that something unusual was occurring there.  The next Central News broadcast carried no information at all on Harwell, nor was any information available on the national or local teletext (a text service carried on UK television channels).

Update Central TV (now Carlton) news actually gave the story more coverage than I originally reported. 

It made a lead story on Thursday night, followed by a background item and a live interview, an update of that on their late news, and further coverage the next day.

Many thanks to the staff at the Central TV newsroom in Abingdon for their assistance with this article.

Later on Friday morning, local BBC radio, BBC Thames Valley FM (now BBC Radio Oxford), announced that Harwell children's school was closed until further notice, but added that the authorities would not say why, commenting that this was unusual and promising to find out more.  This story was carried on a number of subsequent broadcasts, still with no further detail.

A number of local residents contacted Oxfordshire radio station, Fox FM, and mentioned that they had seen the bomb disposal teams and a large number of fire units going to the Harwell site.  The authorities were still telling them nothing.  Fox FM carried the story that something was definitely up, in an attempt to get some explanation.  Given the nature of the work carried out at Harwell, this was clearly in the public interest.

To a degree this tactic worked.  By Friday evening, the story had made national television news, and the UKAEA had made a press release.  The news story claimed that work involving the recycling of domestic smoke detectors, and the radioactive element Americium, had gone slightly wrong, resulting in a small risk of fire at the site.   They stressed that there was no danger to public safety.

A source, who was closely involved, believes that the public were put at extreme risk by the cover-up and has offered a near full account of what really happened.  This source has confirmed that the situation was far more serious than the public were led to believe.  The scientists and management at the site believed that an explosion would be difficult to avoid. 

The Army explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams did not know the exact nature of the explosive substance and were powerless to counteract it.  Fire crews, wearing full Nuclear/Biological/Chemical protection, whose job was to rescue the EOD team in the event of an explosion, stood by, less than 40 yards from the lab.

This source has told me that there was no Americium present at the time and that the smoke detector recycling story was totally untrue.  However, other radioactive elements were at risk of being blown up and scattered over the surrounding area.

I was unable to confirm the presence of weapons material at the site, but the source would confirm regular shipments of cargo between Harwell and AWE Aldermaston, amongst other military bases, with regular convoys of trucks and armed escorts using the A34 dual-carriageway.   The source also confirmed that the initial experiment which had caused the problem, was related to weapons research.

Over 24-hours after the first alarm was raised, the experts from Dounreay along with local site staff, decided that their best chance at containing the situation was to neutralise the Silver Picrate with acid.  The Army EOD team were tasked with this assignment, but without a guarantee from the boffins that it would actually work.

Even with a risk of failure, the attempt to neutralise the explosive went ahead, thankfully with success.  Crews from the Army EOD unit, and Oxfordshire Fire Service stood down and the situation returned to normal.

In all the chaos and confusion, nobody at Harwell Labs informed the staff at Rutherford Appleton Labs, on the same site.  These employees were placed in danger without their knowledge or consent.  At the time, they were told a similar story to the public, that there was very little danger.  This is an unacceptable situation.

In order to prevent bad publicity, such as this, the Government chose to cover it up.   Had the worst happened, how long would it have been before they admitted there had been a leak?  Would the public ever have been told?  Given previous history of nuclear accident cover-ups in the British Isles, I am concerned that even a serious leak would not have come into the public eye, and could have killed or seriously affected the health of the local population.

Make your concern known to your local Member of Parliament (MP).  As has happened so often Britain's nuclear past, the Government will continue to place the public at risk unless we make sure they know they can't and won't get away with it.  In the information age, the truth will always come out.

 

Eight months on - May 2000

The Harwell incident just refuses to lie down.  Or at least, certain entities, such as West Berkshire Council, refuse to let it lie down.  They have stood almost alone against the proceedings at Harwell, demanding a full inquiry into the whole episode.  So far, this has not been forthcoming.  Surprisingly, Oxfordshire County Council have remained very quiet about the affair.

British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), along with Lockheed Martin look set to take over running of the nearby Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire.  Neither company have an enviable safety record and there has been public outcry about the decision.

Harwell itself has been very quiet with little or no news-worthy events recently.

 

Update - October 2001

According to a BBC News article (see link at below) the AEA are to close down their facility at Harwell.  However, the article fails to mention that the AEA are still involved in activity at other local sites such as the nearby Culham research site.

It is very interesting to note that the article refers to a building known as "B220 shielded facility" - the very same building that was involved in the incident in September 1999.

The full article is available for review from the BBC News website at:  http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/business/newsid_1345000/1345337.stm 

 

Update - January 2002

At Oxford Crown Court, the UKAEA was fined (GBP) 4,000 for breach of Health and Safety laws at Harwell on September 9, 1999.  UKAEA and AEA Technology plc were also ordered to pay 57,800 in court costs each.  The prosecution was brought by the UK Health and Safety Executive, a Government body.

This story was reported in the national press.  You can read the story on The Times web site by following this link: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/0,,2-2002031019,00.html 

According to a BBC News report, two Army officers received the George Medal for Bravery following their efforts to deal with the incident in the B220 Shielded Facility.  The official line is still that there was "no real danger to the public", though this has been refuted by several sources who were directly involved at the time.

 

Report by The Spy Swat, exclusively for The Big Brother and Conspiracy Theory Reference.   1999 (main article), 2000 and 2001 (parts) The Big Brother and Conspiracy Theory Reference, all rights reserved.


Vendemen - 19 September 1999
Updated - 27 January 2002