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Harwell at 70

For a visual retrospective of 70 years of nuclear research, operations and decommissioning follow this link:

This year (2016) marked the 70th anniversary of the birthplace of the UK’s nuclear industry.

In 1946, just as Britain was recovering from the end of the Second World War, scientists at Harwell were innovating civil nuclear power for the first time – including the production of the first nuclear reactor in Western Europe.

Based on a former RAF airfield, Harwell was initially taken over by the Ministry of Supply to become the Atomic Energy Research Establishment. This became the UK’s centre for research and development into civil nuclear power with a wide range of experimental and research facilities.

Advances included producing the UK’s first fast reactor, one of 14 experimental reactors that were built on the site.

So important was Harwell to the UK that during the past 70 years the great and the good flocked to see the work first hand, including Sir Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Her Majesty The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

By the late 1980s the requirements for nuclear research and development reduced significantly, with the last three reactors on the Harwell site closing in 1990. The site adapted to changing circumstances, moving into non-nuclear and commercial research, and then to reactor decommissioning, waste management and site restoration.

Today Harwell Site is focused on decommissioning its remaining three nuclear reactors, with a quarter of the 102-hectare site already having been delicensed and released for other uses.  

Gary Reid Harwell Integration Manager said: “Having been at Harwell for number of years it is amazing to see the significant changes over the decades. What hasn’t changed is the unrelenting focus on world-class science and innovation; this focus now being on the safe decommissioning of the site and restoration of the land.”  

Over the years substantial progress has been made on the decommissioning and environmental restoration programme at Harwell. The reduction of the nuclear site has allowed for significant development on the campus, as it continues to grow into a major centre for science and innovation.

David Batters, the Nuclear Decommissioning Aurthority’s Chief Finance Officer, added; “We welcome the significant progress that Magnox Ltd is making in safely decommissioning Harwell Site, with over 100 buildings and facilities now removed. We are working closely with Magnox Ltd on their plans to ensure that in less than 50 years’ time the entire Harwell Site will be delicensed, with all buildings and facilities decontaminated and demolished.”


The changing face of Harwell through the decades:

  • 1940s and 50s – GLEEP, BEPO, ZEPHYR, DIDO, PLUTO and other reactors were built. Sir Winston Churchill toured the site in 1954 and the HM The Queen visited in 1957.
  • 1960s – The research programme was at its peak. Early research into fusion energy and fast reactors took place. Harwell begin to undertake new roles in non-nuclear scientific research.
  • 1970s – The site made the transition from being government-funded to become a partly commercial research organisation. Spin off technologies were used throughout the industry and Harwell established a name for excellence in safety research and environmental science.
  • 1980s – Laser beams were used to investigate aspects of the basic science and technology of laser isotope separation. Work was carried out for the oil industry in the pipeline. AEA Technology was created in 1989.
  • 1990s – A major decommissioning programme was put in place, reactors were closed down. A business development was established in 1989.
  • 2000s – The GLEEP reactor and the Tandem generator tower are demolished. Work continued to remove redundant facilities and buildings. In 2005 Harwell becomes a contractor to the NDA.
  • 2010s – By 2012 large areas of the site had been delicensed and removed from the controls of the Nuclear Installations Act and the security fence was realigned. The land has formed part of the wider Harwell Campus which today has many scientific and space related tenants located there.