The Story of How Britain Got Nuclear Weapons

    Steve Weintz

    Security, Europe

    The British Empire was the first nation to seriously investigate nuclear explosives.

    On July 4, 1945, a select group of men met in a room in Washington, DC to decide how to use the first atomic bomb. Not all of them were Americans because the Bomb was not an American invention; use of the new weapon required approval from Britain, its co-inventor. For instance, the 1943 Quebec Agreement forged by United States President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill specified joint development and control of atomic weapons.

    The British Empire was the first nation to investigate nuclear explosives seriously. By 1941, the Brits had calculated the critical mass of fissionable material required for a bomb, worked out the basics of bomb design and the gaseous diffusion enrichment of uranium. All this information came to the United States with the “British Mission”—the team of top-flight British scientists who joined the Manhattan Project.

    But America is not always a reliable ally, and British generosity wasn’t reciprocated. General Leslie Groves, the tough, beefy chief of the bomb project, early on felt the weapon should be an exclusively American one and took steps to limit British access. As a result, America didn’t share the method for extracting plutonium from uranium, nor did it reveal the existence of the massive Oak Ridge gaseous diffusion plant in Tennessee.

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    Nevertheless, it was a huge shock when Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin rudely learned his country’s closest ally had no intention of sharing the Bomb. A shaken Bevin told Prime Minister Clement Atlee, “no Foreign Secretary should ever again be put in such a position,” and Atlee agreed.

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