Donald Avery: an obituary

Posted by Bob Avery and Nancy Hancock on 1 November 2023 in Articles

Tagged with: BNFL, Capenhurst, Donald Avery, Sellafield, UKAEA, Urenco.

Donald Avery (1926-2023), a distinguished player in the nuclear fuel world who passed away on 4th August. His obituary is contributed by his son.

Donald was born in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, on 11 January 1926. He had an older brother, Brian. Unfortunately, their mother died of TB on Christmas Day 1930, when he was just 4 years old and Brian was 9. This meant that they were largely brought up by relatives, especially an aunt, in a village in rural Buckinghamshire. His father (a primary school headmaster) married again when Donald was 10. Donald’s secondary education was at a prestigious school in Marlow, Bucks, spending holidays working on local farms. Aged 17, war by then having broken out, he was sent to university to study in the hope of providing technically trained officers for the war effort – a ‘reserved occupation’. After the war in 1945, he joined Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Co. in Trafford Park, Manchester, which he enjoyed. He had also, by this time, met his future wife Isabel, a young teacher.

After further study in London, they married in 1950 and his work moved them to Malvern, Worcestershire, where Dad was involved in a Government department doing research into Infra-red imaging and related topics. Donald takes up his own story (written in 2007)…

“An advertisement appeared offering posts at Research Manager level in the Industrial Group of the UKAEA at a salary nearly twice what I was earning. I applied and got a post at the Capenhurst works and in Sept.1958 our young family moved to a village near Chester. I did not find out until much later that the recruitment by the AEA was a rushed reaction to a criticism contained in the report on the 1957 Windscale fire to the effect that the Industrial Group of the AEA had insufficient expertise in instrumentation. Not surprising therefore, with hindsight, that the Capenhurst post was ‘manufactured’ and it was difficult to make much of an impact. I do not recall doing anything of great technical worth there and within 18 months it was clear that further reorganisations were afoot. (The AEA at this time was in an almost perpetual state of flux, driven at least in part by rivalries among those at the top).

Early in 1960 I was asked if I would like to go to Washington DC as the Attaché (Atomic Energy) in the Embassy. Again I only found out later that the Industrial Group was determined to find a candidate since all the previous occupants had come from Harwell. Even though I felt at a loose end professionally we found it a very difficult decision. There were the children to consider and I had been warned, correctly, that it would be the end of a purely scientific career. In the end we decided to go and sailed for the USA in June 1960.

The post in Washington had several functions. I had to establish good relations with the USAEC staff and its contractors to be able to interpret and anticipate developments in the US, and at the same time explain and interpret our UK activities to them. (This last was the more difficult since I often found it difficult to understand what was going on at home!). On the Admin side, my office had to try to monitor all the exchanges of information which took place. Until about 1954 there had been a complete ban by the US on any release of information even on civil atomic energy. This was eased and there were formal inter-Governmental Agreements to define what information could and could not be exchanged, and we had to ensure these limits were kept to. My office also had to arrange visits by UK staff and of course when very senior people came over I had to act as bag carrier. I had a staff of 5, an assistant, and two secretaries. The job also involved a lot of entertaining and being entertained, and so for about the only time Isabel was able to play a direct part in the job. (She had in fact been interviewed before I was offered the job). For my part I had to travel over most of the country.

Whilst I never got back to scientific work, our experience will never be forgotten. Apart from Americans, we met many people in the Embassy from quite different backgrounds and of course the family made our epic trans-continental trip in 1961. We could have had an extra year but we were concerned over the children’s education and so returned to the UK after 2 years in August 1962.

Upon return, my posting to the Commercial Division of the then Production Group of the AEA, at Risley, led to by far the least enjoyable two years of my career. My job was to attempt to sell the AEA’s products and services around the world, but apart from meetings in Brussels with EURATOM I remember little of what I did. I was roped in to a trip to Japan, at a time when we starting to get very close to the Japanese utility JAPCO. I also had a ‘holiday’ attending a course on Reactor Technology run by US GE in, I think Pittsburgh, and snatched a weekend trip to Washington to look up old friends. However the whole time was coloured by my immediate boss, who was a totally unscrupulous internal politician, and ruined more than one person’s career. I made two attempts to get work elsewhere, based on my previous record but without success.

My release was thanks to the then director of the Production Group, who not only engineered the departure of my difficult direct superior, but also asked me to join him as Chief Physicist with promotion to Senior Staff. My first major job was to chair a Working Party on the restart of the Capenhurst Diffusion Plant. This plant, to produce enriched uranium, was originally built to make weapons material but was shut down when arrangements were made to buy from the US. However the latest types of reactors being built, the AGRs required low-enriched uranium and the proposal was to reopen part of the Capenhurst plant for this purpose. My main task was to persuade the CEGB and SSEB that this was in their interests. Since the main part of the costs of running a diffusion plant was the cost of the electricity used, arguments with the Generating Boards had an element of circularity! Eventually agreement was reached and the plant reopened in 1966.

Chief among the new projects was the development of the centrifuge system for uranium enrichment. This had the great advantage of not needing vast amounts of electricity to drive it. Work at Capenhurst had got to the point where we were seriously thinking about replacing the diffusion plant. Intelligence reports in ’67 or ’68 showed both the Dutch and the Germans were also working on the process. After contact at government level, a meeting was set up in The Hague, which I chaired (known afterwards as the ‘Meeting of the Seven Veils’). Each side gave answers to pre-prepared questions to see whether there was a basis for co-operation, without as far as the UK was concerned divulging any classified data. From this it was decided to proceed and there followed in ’68 and ’69 meetings at least every two weeks in London, the Hague or Bonn. A sub-committee of the Cabinet Office was set up, on which I sat, with members from the Min. of Supply (or was it Min. Tech. by then?), The Foreign Office, and Treasury, to name those I remember. We were under great pressure from the FO to agree to everything, regardless of our commercial or research interests, as part of the drive to join the EU. In the end the Treaty of Almelo was signed in 1990. Two companies were formed, Urenco to deal with production and Centec to manufacture the devices. In fact both production and manufacture continued in the separate national facilities for some time before ownership passed to Urenco (not till the late 80s as I recall) I was made a Director of Urenco (with no extra pay!) and remained so till 1974.

At the same time, contacts existed with a US concern, General Atomics in San Diego who were later taken into Gulf Oil. We sought to establish a joint concern for fuel element manufacture in order that we could access the US market. A number of meetings were held in San Diego and New York but the scheme came to naught.

In 1970 I was elevated to the Production Group Board as Assessment and Planning Director, with the added job of preparing the Annual Company Plan which was the vehicle through which we obtained the Department’s sanction for our activities and funding, although by that time our income was such that we made little or no demands on the Treasury. Despite that, the Department and the Treasury required many tedious meetings on the detail. (The Plan was often finalised on the kitchen table on a Sunday morning!)

In 1971 the Production Group was hived off from the AEA and BNFL was created. It is ironic, in the light of the rush to sell off publicly-owned assets in the last 20 years, that the Act establishing BNFL was drawn up by a Labour Government in 1979 and passed virtually unchanged by a Tory Government two years later. I moved over to the BNFL Board with the same title but acquired about then the responsibility for our contracts with the GEGB and SSEB. I also became de facto the principal point of contact with the Department on many issues.

Prior to 1974, management had been organised along functional lines, but in that year the then MD, reorganised us into Divisions each more or less self-contained. I was made Director of the Fuel Division covering our Springfields plant near Preston, I did however keep my responsibilities vis-a vis the Generating Boards and the Department. In one sense this was the best job I ever had; provided fuel elements were turned out to programme, that was it - there was not much call for large capital expenditure. I tried to get to know the Works as best I could but was kept at a distance by the General Manager , who regarded any contact with Risley as a contagion. There was however a baptism of fire; slack procedures led to a number of workers being contaminated with Uranium, one with fatal results. The Works General manager reluctantly agreed at my insistence that the place was cleaned up, but was only too happy to let me deal with the flak from the Dept. and the public!

By 1976 a new MD had taken over and in September asked me to become his Deputy. I kept my earlier Head Office responsibilities and was also responsible at Board level for Finance and Health and Safety policy. The immediate big issue was the proposal to build a large new reprocessing plant at Sellafield (Windscale), the THORP plant. I felt strongly that this was a mistake and put the point to the MD; our engineering resources were already overstretched and would have been better spent on cleaning up the waste residues at Sellafield. But there was no possibility that the Treasury would have funded the latter, and a number of theoretically profitable contacts from Japan where the customer would put funding up front. Strictly as a Director I should have resigned but I simply could not afford to (there were no golden handshakes on offer!) So I kept going and supported our effort at the Public Inquiry in ’77.

At about this time I became a member of the Government’s Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee; a collection of the great and good from academia, civil service, industry, and Trade Unions. Our monthly meetings produced a lot of discussion (and of course papers had to be prepared) and an annual Report which so far as I recall were largely ignored. Still, the Government could claim they were addressing the problem!

I made an attempt to get some progress on the waste disposal issue by persuading the Generating Boards, the AEA and ourselves to set up a joint organisation, called NIREX, to come up with specific proposals. They produced a quite workable scheme for an underground repository in deep clay beds in Bedfordshire. However they were foolish enough to bring this forward just ahead of the 1979 General Election, and the Department smartly walked away.

From the mid-70s on we were subjected to a virtually continuous attack from Greenpeace and the Friends of the Earth. I spent an inordinate amount of time in dealing with these attacks, either through the press, the TV (where I seemed to be the spokesman of choice!) or dealing with Questions in Parliament. Preparing answers to these took many hours; what made it more depressing was that there were really no new questions, just the old accusations of poisoning the planet or our staff, or surreptitiously making Plutonium for bombs, repeated endlessly in different forms.

In about ’78 or ’79, following lengthy publicity over the funeral of one of our Sellafield staff, and a subsequent Court Case, I got together with our main Trade Unions to try to work out a Compensation Scheme under which any employee who had a cancer conceivably related to his employment could claim compensation without the need to go through the Courts. Finally agreement was reached in 1982, after stiff opposition from the lawyers, the Department and some of the more traditional Trade Union members who felt that the bosses should be made to pay for anyone who had cancer. Initially this was limited to BNFL, the other parts of the industry were very suspicious. However in time the entire industry and all the main TUs came to participate in the scheme. This is almost the only thing from my 20-odd years at Risley that I look back on with pride.

That apart, by the early 80’s I had come to feel disillusioned with what I was doing I began to think seriously about retiring. I now wish I had, though I would have been considerably poorer. But at that time the Sizewell Inquiry was looming and it was felt that we had to have a substantial presence; we knew that fuel reprocessing and waste disposal would be major issues. So, from ’82 to ’84 I had to spend most of my time dancing attendance at the Inquiry. That only confirmed my disillusion, the waste of public money and effort mostly in servicing legal niceties I found quite appalling. (We were only supporters of the main case, and it cost us over £1M.) So when it was over I retired in January 1985.

The previous year, Sellafield had contrived to release a large amount of radioactivity to the sea. No-one was harmed or at serious risk of harm but there was of course quite a furore. The ‘Daily Mail’ put out a piece to the effect that I had been sacked because of the incident. Fortunately I had written to the MD the previous year stating my intention of leaving, so that hare did not run! I continued for a year or two as a Consultant to both the Company and the Department. I continued to Chair meetings of the Compensation Scheme and wrote various reports for the Department which sank without trace. Finally in 1990 I called a complete halt and devoted my time to my garden , watercolours and building model railways.”

Donald doesn’t mention his CBE, awarded for services to industry in the New Year Honours List in 1981. He continued to follow events in the industry (though he denied it) until very recently, and the current situation of the British nuclear generating capability having to seek out assistance from foreign countries left him speechless.

Donald and family had lived in Knutsford, Cheshire, from returning from the USA in 1962. After retirement, family circumstances caused relocation to Peterborough in 1998 and again to Leicestershire in 2011. He passed away in a Leicestershire care home on 4th August, 2023, aged 97.

Bob Avery & Nancy Hancock
Carluke, Lanarkshire and
Newtown Linford, Leicestershire
29th August 2023