Universities: it’s time for action

'Atoms for Peace?', the new report from Nuclear Information Service and Medact detailing research links between the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) and British universities, has hit the headlines in the academic press in a big way.  As we hoped when we launched the report, local media and student groups are starting to ask the universities questions about research funded by AWE and the ethics of university scientists conducting research which may support the UK's nuclear weapons programme.

Several of the universities and institutions which have received funding from AWE have issued media statements in response to our report and it's interesting to see what justifications they have given for their involvement with AWE.

Bristol University

Bristol University told the Bristol Post newspaper: "The university is one of five universities with which the AWE has strategic alliances. The relationship has been in place since 2009. Alongside the research projects (some of which are PhD studentships), the relationship seeks to encourage a range of activities which includes AWE involvement in giving seminars, contributing to teaching and joint workshops.

"Research we undertake with AWE is work the university proposes to AWE, work we are keen to pursue, which contributes towards areas such as safe operations, risk and cost reduction in storage of nuclear materials, and decommissioning of nuclear facilities."

University of Cambridge:

A university spokesperson said work undertaken by Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory with AWE was unclassified but was commercially sensitive so could not be detailed publicly.  He indicated examples could be research relating to the storage and decommissioning of weapons, or improvements in detection to stop radioactive material being carried across borders.  The spokesperson said: “The Cavendish Laboratory has long standing links with the AWE dating back over thirty years.  Everything we do with them is basic research to assist the AWE in its roles of ensuring the safety of the nuclear armament stockpile and as the UN agency responsible for upholding the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.”  None of the projects involve the use of radioactive material in the laboratory.

Cranfield University

Cranfield University told the Times Higher Education Supplement that it had supported the UK defence community through its research since its formation as the College of Aeronautics in 1946. “We are proud that this work has helped protect the men and women of the Armed Services who put their lives at risk daily on behalf of our nation and to have contributed, in part, to the post-conflict reconstruction of nations around the world,” a spokesman said.

Imperial College

According to Imperial College, the "majority" of its funding from AWE was "strongly blue skies in nature". A college spokesman said: "AWE-funded research at Imperial leads to understanding and applications that contribute significantly to the public good, including a better understanding of earthquakes, extreme weather events and the damage caused to people by explosions and blasts.”

University of Oxford:

A spokesperson for the university said “AWE-funded research at Oxford is strongly fundamental in nature. It addresses questions which are of general scientific interest and outcomes are published in the scientific literature.”

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC)

In a statement the EPSRC said: “AWE has unique research capabilities and assets and is a highly valued partner to EPSRC, contributing significantly to the UK’s overall research endeavour.”
It added: “EPSRC is party to both the concordat to support research integrity published by Universities UK in 2012 and to the Research Council UK policy and guidelines on the governance of good research conduct. We, of course, expect all the research we fund to be conducted in line with these policies and know that our partners share our commitment to such standards.”

Atomic Weapons Establishment

AWE itself has made the following statement on its research collaboration with universities:  "The UK government has made clear its policy on maintaining the nuclear deterrent. AWE's technical outreach programme supports this and follows this declared government policy.
Through AWE's links with institutions such as universities, professional bodies and government agencies, we can build upon and share knowledge for mutual benefit. In implementing the programme, we abide by the requirements of current UK legislation under the regulatory supervision of the ONR, EA and DNSR [Office for Nuclear Regulation, Environment Agency and Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator]. All our actions take place within that framework.
All AWE suppliers, including universities, are required to comply with AWE's code of ethics."


Not surprisingly, statements from the universities emphasise non-military aspects of the work that AWE is funding and stress applications in nuclear safety and disarmament verification.  But AWE's own comments have rather let the cat out of the bag: the government has a clear policy on 'the nuclear deterrent' and the Establishment's technical outreach programme support this.  There you have it – in the clearest of terms.  AWE aren't funding research in universities for philanthropic purposes: they're doing it because they think the results will be of use to Britain's nuclear weapons programme.

It's for this reason that we have today written to Vice Chancellors at all British universities to send them a copy of the 'Atoms for Peace?' report and ask them to take action to ensure that research funded by AWE in universities does not contribute to the development of weapons of mass destruction.  There will always be a risk that research results have the potential of 'dual use' for either beneficial or harmful applications, but to minimise the risk of harm we want universities to take the following steps:

  • Review their ethical assessment processes in line with recommendations in the 'Atoms for Peace?' report to ensure that they are suitable for assessing proposals for research which may have dual use potential and contribute to the development of weapons of mass destruction.
  • Ensure that all proposals for research in collaboration with the Atomic Weapons Establishment are reviewed through the university's ethical assessment process.
  • Rule out proceeding with any such research proposals which fail to meet the university's ethical standards.

At the launch of the 'Atoms for Peace?' report every one of our guest speakers emphasised that universities should not undertake work that directly contributes to the development of nuclear weapons.  Though it might be difficult in practice to enforce this, there is no excuse for not trying.  The spotlight is now on universities to show what they are doing to prevent research from straying into high risk areas which might help in the manufacture of weapons of  mass destruction.

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