Today Sir William Penney a member of the team that developed the British nuclear bomb was born in 1909. Later a life-peer he died at 82 from liver cancer which may have come from a life-time’s exposure to Uranium.
Successive governments have denied any link between nuclear tests and ill-health, but links with liver cancer are well known.
Penney’s son later said, ‘his father never wanted to do the job but did what Attlee, and later Prime-Ministers asked of him, and regretted the death and suffering which had made his father’s name.
Mathematician of Imperial College, London, Sir William worked on the original atomic bomb in the USA with Robert Oppenheimer in the 1940.s, and their use in Japan in 1945.
He was in charge of Tests between 1952-67, in Australia and the Pacific, Christmas Island, when over time, 20,000 servicemen were used as witnesses to the explosions without adequate protection. They were told to put groundsheets over their heads (they were only wearing shorts), turn round and close their eyes.
In 1985 Penney gave evidence to a Royal Commission into the Tests, the only time he had commented, saying, ‘the public were in the dark about size of ‘fall-out’. He said there ought to be a balance between East and West, and that all he wanted was to be professor’.
He also revealed that in 1958, ‘he and the top brass fled the area from the fall-out at Christmas Island, unsure of what was to happen.
Our first Atomic Test took place on the 3rd October 1951, with the Blue Danube, Plutonium Bomb, being tested next year in the Monte Bello Islands off North-West Australia. Remarkable in that Churchill, then Prime Minister, had taken part in the last cavalry charge at Omdurman.
The first H-bomb detonation took place on 15th May 1957, leaving Harold Macmillan as the first Prime Minister to have his thermonuclear finger on the trigger.
The earliest British hydrogen bombs, the Yellow Sun Mark 11.s were fitted to V-bombers from 1961 onwards, after their successful testing under Operation Grapple on Christmas Island four years previously.
It was revealed fifty years later on a BBC Radio 4 programme that despite popular thinking we never produced an operational H-bomb in the 1950.s. It appears that the bombs in Operation Grapple on Christmas Island were fission devices, not fusion, devised to fool the media and convince the Americans we now had the H-bomb, despite be denied American co-operation after the 1946 U.S. McMahon Act.
In 2009 the victims of the nuclear tests were granted the right to sue the Ministry of Defence, at a time of only 3,000 surviving servicemen who had been involved and experienced the effects of radio-active fall-out.
We are all victims to some extent and do what is expected of us and I speak as someone drafted to carry arms at the government’s behest. William Penney as a mathematician was drafted into government service in World War II and things developed from there: all he wanted was to be professor.