Britain’s secretive nuclear weapons research organisation gives over £8 million a year in research funding to more than 50 universities, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), a private consortium that runs nuclear bomb plants at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire for the Ministry of Defence (MoD), puts most of the money into five of the UK’s leading universities with which it has formed “strategic alliances”.
They are Imperial College in London, and the universities of Cambridge, Bristol, Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh and Cranfield in Bedfordshire and Wiltshire. The money helps fund research into plasma physics, high performance computing, materials science and hydrodynamics, all of which are important for designing and making nuclear weapons.
The report, which is being launched on 12 February at University College London, claims to be the first to expose the extent of AWE’s links with universities. It is based on responses under freedom of information law from the MoD and universities.
It is being published by two groups campaigning for nuclear disarmament, Nuclear Information Service (NIS) and Medact, which brings together health professionals. They accept that not all of the research will directly help the UK’s nuclear weapons programme, but say that much of it will.
“Work which will allow the UK to retain and develop its nuclear weapons over the long term has no place on the campus,” said NIS director, Pete Wilkinson. “AWE values its academic outreach programme as much for the acceptance it buys for AWE's own scientists in reputable academic circles as for its scientific findings.”
He urged universities and researchers to adopt a more ethical and transparent approach to working with AWE. “Our report aims to warn them of the risks of being seduced into murky waters by the lure of AWE's cash,” he said.
According to responses from the MoD, Imperial College has received the most from AWE, with £7.7 million allocated between 2010 and July 2012. Over the same period, £3.6m went to Cranfield, nearly £2m to Cambridge, £1.3m to Bristol and £708,000 to Heriot-Watt.
AWE funds six professorships, named after its first director, Sir William Penney, at five universities. Two are at Cranfield, one at Cambridge, one at Bristol, one at Heriot-Watt and one at the University of Edinburgh.
Other universities that benefited substantially included Southampton, Surrey, Bath, University College London, Oxford, Birmingham, Warwick, Loughborough, Leicester, Manchester, Liverpool, Strathclyde, Edinburgh, St Andrews and Queens in Belfast.
AWE pointed out that it was government policy to maintain nuclear weapons. "AWE’s technical outreach programme supports this and follows this declared government policy," said an AWE spokeswoman.
"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 doing so, AWE abided by current UK legislation under the supervision of three government regulatory agencies.
She added: "All AWE suppliers, including universities, are required to comply with AWE’s code of ethics. The code sets out our principles of ethical conduct and the standards that all those who work on our sites and our suppliers are expected to follow."
A spokesman for the University of Cambridge pointed out that its Cavendish Laboratory had been linked to AWE for more than 30 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,” he said.
Mohammad Razai, a medical student at Cambridge and co-chair of the university disarmament campaign, Global Zero, was alarmed at the links to AWE. “Cambridge should be at the forefront of furthering the humanitarian aims of nuclear disarmament treaties, not actively assisting and legitimising an institution that builds nuclear bombs,” he said.
According to Imperial College, the “majority” of AWE’s funding 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.”
The report on AWE's university funding is available to download here.
This story was followed up by Times Higher Education.