chapter  2
32 Pages

Nuclear testing, the future of the MDA, and the defence review, January–October 1965

ByMatthew Jones

It will be recalled from the previous volume that in January 1964 the Conservative Government then in office had authorised a three-year weapon research programme, involving an annual round of underground nuclear testing in Nevada. The election of a Labour Government ostensibly committed to forsaking Britain’s nuclear role over the longer term placed doubts over whether the programme as previously conceived would still go forward. At the very end of 1964, two months after Labour’s arrival in office, senior MoD officials tentatively took up the issue. They had been prompted by a fresh draft paper from the UK Atomic Energy Authority (AEA) on the future nuclear test programme, and proposed for consideration by the Nuclear Requirements for Defence Committee (NRDC). This advocated a repeat of the failed Polaris ‘economy’ test of September 1964 – intended to save on the quantity of fissile material required in the UK-designed primary for the Polaris warhead – as well as three new research tests in 1965/66. Current policies, it was noted, called for completion of work on warhead projects, the maintenance of post-design capabilities (covering problems of warhead manufacture, storage, handling, maintenance, trials and modifications), and the continuation of weapons effects studies, all of which required ‘the quality of research and development work on nuclear warhead physics, materials and skills’ to be kept at a high level. ‘In this way,’ the paper argued, ‘it should be possible to retain the special skills and the ability to complete a new project in reasonable time’ and to ensure the continuing exchange of nuclear information with the United States regulated by the provisions of the MDA of 1958. 1 Within the MoD it was recognised that the change of government meant that simple approval by the NRDC – a body composed of interdepartmental officials – was not seen as sufficient, since the AEA paper assumed that the Government’s nuclear weapons policy would remain unaltered. What was really needed before an NRDC meeting, it was felt, was ‘a general steer from the Secretary of State on this subject with Cabinet endorsement.’ 2