Saturday, 16 July 2016

58 Scientist Percy White

58 Percy White - 16 July 2016 (photos: Aldermaston, Percy White, graduation)

In the context of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan to end the Second World War, there was much apprehension lest weapons of mass destruction be developed and used by hostile nations, leading to total annihilation.  In some quarters it was felt that if Britain possessed a nuclear weapon that would be a deterrent against threats from any enemy.

The Atomic Weapons Research Establishment was set up after the Second World War in Aldermaston, a village south-west of Reading, where research on Britain’s first H-bomb was being carried out, amidst the uncertainty and suspicions of the Cold War.  Many readers will remember that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) organised over Easter weekends what were called the Aldermaston Marches to protest about that research.  In 1958, the year following the testing of the first bomb, 9,000 people marched on Aldermaston.  Later there was concern over Dounreay, a village on the north coast of Scotland, where Britain’s “fast reactor” nuclear programme was operational from 1959 to 1977; this was replaced by the larger version Prototype Fast Reactor from 1974. 

This might sound far removed from Swansea, but a person brought up in this area was at the centre of the development of Britain’s nuclear programme.  Just as the government code-breaking work at Bletchley Park was top secret until a few decades ago, so secrecy and anonymity has meant that much of this work had remained unknown to the general public.  Atomic scientist Percy White was born in London a century ago, on 16 July 1916, the son of a tent-maker and a seamstress.  The family moved to Swansea, and settled in Middle Road, Ravenhill.  Percy White attended Gendros School, then Dynevor, and won a scholarship to University College, Swansea, where he graduated with first-class honours in chemistry at the age of 19.  A further scholarship took him to University College London, where he obtained a diploma in chemical engineering. 

Having begun work in the metals industry and on the design of power station equipment, at the outbreak of the Second World War he was recruited as a government scientist in the Ministry of Supply.  The Royal Ordnance Factories were struggling to meet the demand for ammunition until he developed a new method of filling shells with high explosive - thereby mechanising a process that had been labour-intensive: his invention was patented.  After the war as a government scientist he worked at Porton Down in Wiltshire and at Woolwich Arsenal, part of the large ARD (Armament Research Department).  In 1949 he was recruited to the super-secret group within the ARD to design, make and test an atomic bomb for Britain. 

As the project grew the group moved in early 1950 to the former RAF base at Aldermaston.  White had to research, design and commission a radioactive liquid treatment plant for the site, for until that was done no radioactive material could be used.  Britain’s first atomic bomb was successfully tested in October 1952 off the north-west coast of Australia.  In the 1960s he led a team of chemists, metallurgists and engineers researching for the “fast reactor” at Dounreay in Caithness. 

Awarded an OBE in 1966, White retired to Lymington in Hampshire six years later, and acted as consultant for Hampshire NHS, advising on the design and installation of clean air areas in hospitals and laboratories.  He became proficient as an artist enameller, holding a one-man exhibition at Winchester City Art Gallery.  Married for over 65 years with two children, Percy White died in January 2013 aged 96, six years to the day after his wife’s death.  He was described as a highly-talented engineer who was energetic and self-confident, “with an enquiring mind and the ability to express himself with extraordinary clarity”.

Advocates of nuclear disarmament may disagree, but Swansea can be proud of contributing to the education of this outstanding scientist, born a century ago.

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