Harwell Laboratory, Oxfordshire

By Alan Dronsfield

The following account of the work of the Harwell laboratory has been adapted from “B220 – Sixty Years of Scientific Discovery” published by Research Sites Restoration Ltd to commemorate the Chemical Landmark award.

“For sixty years, Harwell’s radiochemical laboratories have been at the heart of the UK nuclear chemical industry, initiating and developing much of the original science and technology upon which that industry was based, and attracting and fostering the skills of some of the country’s most talented and forward-thinking scientists.

In 1946, with the nuclear industry in its infancy, it was recognised that a specialised building was needed to carry out chemical studies on radioactive materials. The then Atomic Energy Research Establishment – later the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority – had just been set up at Harwell and was initially undertaken in modified RAF buildings already on the site. It was soon recognised that a specialist laboratory was needed and the building that emerged, known as B220, was completed in 1949. It was the only radiochemical building of its kind in Europe and the most advanced to be built anywhere in the world.

It is essentially the same building that has remained in use until the present day, housing scientists who collectively have greatly increased the sum of our radiochemical knowledge and making important discoveries in areas such as reactor fuels, medical radioisotopes and the management of nuclear waste.

As part of the national atomic energy research and development programme, scientists at the Harwell laboratories studied the chemistry of irradiated fuels and actinides – radioactive heavy metals such as plutonium, protactinium and neptunium. At this time they led the world in the development of reprocessing techniques to isolate and purify plutonium from radioactive fuel.

Today’s mature nuclear industry no longer required a large-scale facility like the radiochemical laboratories and since the mid-1990s a progressive programme of decommissioning has been underway. In the last 15 years a total of 350 glove-boxes used for the handling of radioactive materials have been decontaminated, dismantled and removed. Several laboratories have been decommissioned and much of building B220 is now empty and safe for conversion to alternative use. It will remain as a testament to the many fine scientists and engineers who have worked there down the decades in the furtherance of the UK’s nuclear power industry.”

Original article written by Alan Dronsfield and published in V. Quirke (ed), Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group Newsletter, February 2010.