The University of St Andrews has received almost £500,000 in research funding from Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), the UK-wide nuclear weapons research organisation, a recently released report reveals.

The report has been published by the Nuclear Information Service (NIS) and health charity Medact, two groups who are opposed to nuclear proliferation. The report discloses that over the period from January 2010 to June 2012, St Andrews received a total of £498,723.29 in research funding from AWE. Funding increased during the period, from £154,250.54 in 2010 to £193,354.50 in 2011. In just the first six months of 2012, £151,118.25 was received.

Although St Andrews is not one of the five UK universities designated as being in “strategic alliance” with AWE, the figures show that it received the 10th highest level of funding of the 50 universities connected with the research organisation.

The five main “allied” benefactors of AWE’s funding were Imperial College London (£7.7 million), Cranfield University in Bedfordshire (£3.6 million), the University of Cambridge (£1.9 million), the University of Bristol (£1.3 million) and Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh (£0.7 million).

AWE is managed by a consortium of well-known private sector firms including Serco, Lockheed Martin and Jacobs Engineering Group. It provides the warheads for the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent, controlling all aspects from research and design to manufacture, maintenance and disposal.

According to AWE’s website, university-level research focuses on four key areas: hydrodynamics (causing solid materials to behave like fluids by applying shock forces), plasma physics (modelling the extremely high temperatures found in nuclear detonation through the use of high-powered lasers), materials science (studying the behaviour of the various materials in a nuclear warhead) and supercomputing (creating realistic 3D simulation models to assist the other research areas).

Speaking to The Saint, the director of NIS, Peter Burt, warned of the potential ethical impacts of AWE-funded research and argued that the University should scrutinise this area further: “Some of the research work funded by the AWE is to be welcomed, such as work on nuclear disarmament verification, but much of it is ‘dual use’ in nature, meaning it has the potential to be used for either socially useful or destructive purposes, and some of it actively contributes to the development of weapons of mass destruction.

“AWE has made it very clear that it commissions research at universities as part of its role to maintain the UK’s nuclear weapons capability, so make no mistake – researchers who accept funding from the Establishment are supporting the UK’s nuclear weapons programme.

“Our report calls for universities to review their ethical review processes to make sure they are adequate for addressing the ethical issues associated with dual use research with potential roles in the development of weapons of mass destruction. All research funded by the AWE should be screened by a university’s ethical review processes, and work which does not meet suitable ethical standards should not be undertaken.”

Dr David McCoy, the chair of Medact, added: “Many aspects of scientific research work funded by the AWE are conducted in sensitive and controversial areas, raising complex ethical and legal issues.

“There are clear international norms against the use and possession of weapons of mass destruction, recognised by a number of international legal treaties, including the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, which require states holding nuclear weapons to take steps towards disarmament. Researchers should ask themselves whether a research programme is likely to support or undermine such norms before deciding to accept any funding from AWE”.

In a response to the Guardian, which published the findings, a spokeswoman for AWE defended its practices: “The UK government has made clear its policy on maintaining the nuclear deterrent. AWE’s technical outreach programme supports this and follows this declared government policy.

“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 implementing the programme, we abide by the requirements of current UK legislation under the regulatory supervision of the Office for Nuclear Regulation, Environment Agency and Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator. All our actions take place within that framework.

“All AWE suppliers, including universities, are required to comply with AWE’s code of ethics.”

Controversy surrounding the role of St Andrews in weapons research first surfaced in August 2011, when a group known as the Sneak Attack Tigers vandalised the premises of Fluid Gravity Engineering on Market Street, gluing the front door locks shut. In an email sent to The Courier at the time the group alleged that Fluid Gravity Engineering was a “weapons research” company “contracted by the military-industrial complex”. Fluid Gravity Engineering is an independent engineering research company which has a working relationship with the University. There is no indication that it has been involved in AWE-funded research.

The University of St Andrews declined to comment on the report.

1 COMMENT

  1. Good story. Universities should not be undertaking research into weapons of mass destruction and no reputable scientist would work in this area. It’s worth remembering that scientists working on nuclear weapons would today be facing trial as war criminals if they had been doing exactly the same work in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

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