Amongst the items held by the IET Archives are two nuclear reactor plates taken from the Merlin nuclear reactor. However, there is no need for the archivists to get out a Geiger counter every time we bring out the plates because they are information plaques attached to the outside of the reactor. The first plaque, shown below is from the opening of the reactor in November 1959.
The Merlin Reactor and Aldermaston
Merlin was a 5 MW research reactor at Aldermaston Court, Aldermaston, Berkshire, England, which operated from 6 November 1959 until 1962 before its license was revoked/surrendered in 1963. It was the first commercial scientific reactor in Britain and was privately owned and operated by Associated Electrical Industries (AEI). A British Pathé recording of the opening of the reactor (without sound) can be found on the British Pathé website here – Merlin Reactor Opening
Aldermaston Court is a country house and park built in the Victorian era for the British Member of Parliament, Daniel Higford Davall Burr (1811-1885) with elements incorporated from buildings of earlier centuries that had been present on the site. In 1939 AEI bought the house and immediate grounds for £16,000, but despite this purchase, the government soon earmarked the location for an airfield, RAF Aldermaston. During WWII the land and house were requisitioned by the government as a barracks for the Women’s Land Army.
After the war, the airfield remained in use until 1950, before becoming the site for the UK’s Atomic Programme. That Aldermaston site was officially named the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) in 1952 later the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) for research, commissioning, and de-commissioning of most such weapons.
Separately the house and immediate grounds were returned to AEI following the war, and AEI used it as a plasma research laboratory. The AEI Laboratory was located in the house and several huts in the grounds going down to the lake. AEI built the now demolished reactor between the house and its lake.
How did the plaques come under the care of the IET Archives?
A little of the provenance of these items is unclear but they most likely came into the archives with the donation of the papers of Douglas Richard Chick, FIEE.
In 1946 Chick joined the Research Laboratory of AEI at Aldermaston, where he was appointed Section Leader of the Nuclear Physics Section. He later became Group Leader of the newly-formed Nuclear Sciences Group. In 1963, after the closure of the Merlin reactor, Chick moved to become Research Manager of the Vickers Company Research Laboratory, Ascot, where he remained until 1966, when he was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the new University of Surrey. The Chick papers include many of AEI’s research papers including reports about the Merlin reactor.
The second plaque, which is shown below, perhaps hints at the frustration of the engineers, technicians and scientists at Aldermaston when the Merlin reactor was shut down in 1962.