Department of State Atomic Energy Files

Memorandum by the Chairman, of the Research and Development Board (Bush) to the Secretary of Defense (Forrestal)


Subject: British Plutonium Production

You have asked me through the Chairman of the Military Liaison Committee to comment upon the recent exchange of memoranda among members of the Atomic Energy Commission with respect to the “discovery” of Mr. Strauss that the British are actively engaged in the development of atomic weapons and that their research and development work on reactors is in the direction of plutonium production. With this request I am glad to comply, for I do not feel that the British have failed to abide by the general arrangements made last January by the Combined Policy Committee.

You will recall that for more than a year commencing in the winter of 1945–1946 our close war-time relationships with the British and Canadians in atomic energy matters were permitted to fall into disuse. When our raw material situation became acute, we reopened negotiations with them. Preliminary meetings of the American members of the CPC were held in November 1947, and the entire matter was thoroughly discussed. I am sure that of the persons present at those preliminary meetings no one had any idea that the British would refrain from either production of plutonium or the development of atomic weapons. I believe that I stated at one of those meetings that the British and Canadians were in fact going ahead on their own despite the fact that our collaboration had virtually ceased. As a member of the war-time CPC I was well aware of the extent of British knowledge in this field and of their feeling that for domestic political reasons, as well as in the interests of their national security, they could not afford to refrain from such activities. Moreover, I have an impression that by the time of the formal CPC meetings last December and January1 the British had already informed their own people that they were engaging in work on atomic weapons.

In addition to my recollections, the record is clear on this issue. The schedule of allocations of raw materials prepared by a group which included the General Manager of the Atomic Energy Commission, was based on a report of estimated consumption of uranium which was submitted to the entire CPC.2 This report states that British requirement was for the construction and operation of two air-cooled piles for [Page 739] the production of plutonium. I am somewhat at a loss to understand how on this record any question could now be raised as to the intentions of the British Government. This is particularly true since although the British expressed a marked interest in deriving usable power from nuclear reactors, the American members, on the basis of our own experience, must have been well aware that many years of development would be required in order to utilize these reactors to obtain significant amounts of power.

V. Bush
  1. For the Minutes of the Meetings of the Combined Policy Committee, December 10 and 15, 1947, see Foreign Relations, 1947, vol. i, pp. 889 and 897, respectively. For the Minutes of the Meeting of January 7, 1948, see p. 679.
  2. The agreement on allocations, January 7, 1948, is printed p. 685.