In 1980 Greenham Common was selected as one of six bases in Europe for the deployment of Ground Launched Cruise Missiles and this made the airbase a prime target for any potential Soviet attack. It also raised consciousness about and resistance to nuclear weapons among the British public. A number of people got involved with Cruisewatch and campaigning against the cruise missiles. Following the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty of 1987, the cruise missiles were removed between August 1989 and mid-1991 and the USAF left Greenham in 1992 after which the base was closed.
Origin and development of Nuclear Information Service
Di McDonald had been involved with Cruisewatch and the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp. She was aware that, while the American cruise missiles had been removed, at Aldermaston and Burghfield British nuclear weapons were being manufactured, serviced and developed and most importantly, were leaving AWE in warhead convoys for Scotland by road. “Polaris Watch” had been monitoring these and AWE weapons convoys to RAF Honington, RNAD Devonport and RN Portsmouth since the 1980s and around this time the network expanded and merged with campaigners from Scotland who had also been tracking convoys and were called Nukewatch. Meanwhile, Sea Action monitored nuclear shipping and submarine movements. This, and information from other grass-roots nuclear issues groups, needed to reach researchers and decision makers quickly and Di thought that there should be a distribution point for AWE and all British nuclear weapons transport information.
In 1992 she started the Nuclear Information Project (NIP) which was an unincorporated body which received grants and donations from a variety of sources. It was able to fund Di to carry out monitoring work from its inception until the end of August 2000. During that time Di had sought encouragement and support from a variety of people – Duncan Barnet assisted in the production of accounts which aided grant applications. Over this period NIP helped Nukewatch track and publicise the movement of newly built Trident warheads from AWE to Coulport to arm the then new Trident submarines, and the transport of redundant Chevaline warheads from Coulport into storage in East Anglia prior to decommissioning. The partnership also organised a highly successful exhibition about nuclear warhead transport in the House of Commons shortly after the 1997 election which was attended by many of the newly elected Labour MPs.
On 31 August 2000 Nuclear Information Service (NIS) was registered as a company limited by guarantee. Di became one of the three company directors along with Evelyn Parker and Rita Leighton who had been supportive of NIP and Duncan Barnet became the company secretary.
The company has continued since that day with a number of additions to and retirements from the board as peoples’ circumstances and availability have changed.
The company has been funded by grants and donations. The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT) has been a generous and regular funder making its first grant in 2001.
During the first ten years of life NIS continued with its core work in monitoring the UK’s nuclear weapons programme, collating information and supporting networks such as Nukewatch and locally based groups such as SCANS (Solent Coast Against Nuclear Submarines, which focused on submarine visits to Southampton and Portsmouth) and NAG (Nuclear Awareness Group, which highlighted health and environmental impacts from the Atomic Weapons Establishment).
Over this period NIS began to develop its research skills using Freedom of Information legislation, and Di’s investigations revealed that the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Burghfield had been placed under a special permissioning regime by regulators as a result of risks posed by extensive safety shortfalls. Research jointly conducted by NIS and NAG revealed that in 2007 Burghfield had suffered from serious flooding during a summer storm which severely impacted on warhead production for most of the following year. Working with the Nuclear Submarines Forum (NSubF), Di also joined the Independent Advisory Group for the Ministry of Defence’s Submarine Dismantling Project to help MoD grasp the nettle of its radioactive legacy and work out how it would dispose of out-of-service nuclear submarines safely.
In 2009 Di wanted to take a less active role in the company and Peter Burt took over as project director. The office moved out of Di’s home and into an office in Reading which is nearer to Aldermaston and Burghfield. This provided an opportunity to further ‘professionalise’ NIS’s ways of working so that it would function on a more formal basis. The Board was expanded and new board members including Nick Ritchie and Trish Whitham were welcomed to the organisation. Steven Hendry also joined NIS, initially as a research assistant, and eventually became Chair of the Board of Directors before moving on to a successful career in the voluntary sector in Reading.
Over this period NIS’s investigations using the Freedom of Information Act continued to advance, and NIS co-operated closely with John Ainslie of Scottish CND and journalist Rob Edwards in regularly breaking news stories about difficulties and safety issues troubling the UK nuclear weapons programme. The three partners were also contacted by whistleblowers with concerns about the programme, notably a group called the ‘Concerned Taxpayers’ who provided information about corruption and poor project management at AWE, and Royal Navy rating William McNeilly, the ‘Trident Whistleblower’.
NIS also worked closely with NAG and Aldermaston Women’s Peace Camp who were opposing the infrastructure development programme at the Atomic Weapons Establishment. NIS provided technical and planning information to support objections for planning applications for major projects such as the Mensa warhead assembly facility at Burghfield; the Pegasus uranium handling facility at Aldermaston, and the Hydrus hydrodynamics research facility.
High quality research work continued to be a priority for NIS and over this period produced a string of reports including highlighting the need for reform of the AWE Local Liaison Committee; AWE’s links to universities and the academic community; the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement (which allows sharing of information on nuclear warhead science); the work of the Atomic Weapons Establishment and a blueprint for its transformation away from nuclear and military based work into socially useful production; and the UK’s nuclear accident history.
In 2016 David Cullen became our third project director and remains in post in this anniversary year. Di has remained as a company director and has served as chair of the board at various times. The employment of full time professional researchers has helped maintain the focus and quality of the reports produced by NIS.
The initial office in Reading was in the premises of a firm of accountants, Goldstar Ltd in Southampton Street. Then in 2015 we were given notice as the premises were to be redeveloped. We were fortunate to be able to find a new office in the Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC), where the organisation continues to be based.