United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority

United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority
Type Non-departmental public body
Official language
British English
Key people
Prof. Ian T. Chapman (CEO)
Subsidiaries Culham Centre for Fusion Energy
Website www.gov.uk/government/organisations/uk-atomic-energy-authority

The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority is a UK government research organisation responsible for the development of nuclear fusion power. It is an executive non-departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

On its formation in 1954, the authority was responsible for the UK's entire nuclear program, both civil and defence, as well as the policing of nuclear sites. It made pioneering developments in nuclear (fission) power, overseeing the peaceful development of nuclear technology and performing much scientific research. However, since the early 1970s its areas of work have been gradually reduced, with functions transferred to other government organisations as well as to the private sector.

The authority now focuses on UK and European fusion power research programs at Culham in Oxfordshire, including the world's most powerful fusion device, the Joint European Torus. The research aims to develop fusion power as a commercially viable, environmentally sound energy source for the future.

It has also been involved in undertaking safety and reliability assessments for outside bodies, due to its long running experience in such work within the nuclear field.


The authority was established on 19 July 1954 when the Atomic Energy Authority Act 1954[1] received Royal Assent and gave the authority the power “to produce, use and dispose of atomic energy and carry out research into any matters therewith”.[2][3]

The UKAEA was formed from the Ministry of Supply, Department of Atomic Energy and inherited its facilities and most of its personnel on its formation.

The first chairman was Sir Edwin Plowden, with board members running the three major divisions:[2]

UKAEA inherited nearly 20,000 employees, which doubled to 41,000 by 1961. Most of UKAEA's early activities were related to the UK's nuclear weapons programme, and the need for plutonium, highly enriched uranium, and materials for hydrogen bombs. Between 1952 and 1958 UKAEA carried out 21 nuclear weapon tests in Australia and the Pacific.[2]

Following the Atomic Energy Authority Act 1971, the authority was split into three, with only research activities remaining with the Authority. The Radiochemical Centre Ltd took over production of medical and industrial radioisotopes and was later privatised in 1982 as Amersham plc. British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) took over nuclear fuel and weapons material producing activities: the manufacturing plant at Springfields, the enrichment plant at Capenhurst, the spent-fuel facility at Windscale, and the dual-purpose Calder Hall and Chapelcross military plutonium producing reactors.[4]

The Atomic Energy Authority (Weapons Group) Act 1973 transferred responsibility for management of the UK's nuclear deterrent, including the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, directly to the Ministry of Defence.

In 1982 the authority was involved in the creation of Nirex, to develop and operate radioactive waste disposal facilities in the UK.

The Atomic Energy Authority Act 1986 put the authority into trading fund mode, requiring it to act and account as though it were a commercial enterprise and become self-financing.

The authority was then split again by the Atomic Energy Authority Act 1995, with the more commercial parts transferred into a public company AEA Technology, which was then floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1996. The nuclear facilities used for the UK's research and development program, which held large decommissioning liabilities, were retained. The role of the authority became to decommission these nuclear assets and to restore the environment around the sites. From the early 1990s the authority completed more decommissioning work than anyone in Europe, and had considerable success in regenerating former nuclear sites for commercial use.

Following the Energy Act 2004, on 1 April 2005 the UK's specialist nuclear police force, the UK Atomic Energy Authority Constabulary, was reconstituted as the Civil Nuclear Constabulary. Responsibility for the force was also removed from the authority and transferred to the Civil Nuclear Police Authority. The 2004 Act also established the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which on 1 April 2005 took ownership and responsibility for the liabilities relating to the cleanup of UK nuclear sites. The authority became a contractor for the NDA for the decommissioning work at Dounreay, Harwell, Windscale, Winfrith and the JET facilities at Culham.

On 1 April 2008, the Authority announced a major re-structuring to meet its decommissioning obligations with the NDA. A new wholly owned subsidiary, UKAEA Limited, was formed with established expertise from the existing company, to focus on nuclear decommissioning and environmental restoration management and consultancy in the UK and international markets.

At the same time, Dounreay Site Restoration Limited (DSRL) was formed out of the existing Authority team at Dounreay and was licensed by the Health and Safety Executive to operate the site and carry out its decommissioning under the Authority’s management. DSRL became a subsidiary of UKAEA Limited.

In parallel with these changes, the site at Windscale in Cumbria was transferred to Sellafield Ltd, a site licence company under contract to the NDA, following close review and scrutiny by the Health and Safety Executive and environmental and security regulators. The majority of authority employees at the site transferred to Sellafield Ltd.

On 2 February 2009, the authority announced the next stage in restructuring. Research Sites Restoration Limited (RSRL), was formed from the existing teams at Harwell in Oxfordshire and Winfrith in Dorset and licensed by the Health and Safety Executive to operate those sites. RSRL continued the decommissioning programmes for Harwell and Winfrith on behalf of the NDA. RSRL also became a subsidiary of UKAEA Limited.

In October 2009, Babcock International Group plc acquired UKAEA Limited, the nuclear clean-up subsidiary of the authority, including its subsidiary companies DSRL and RSRL.[5]

In 2009 the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) was launched as the new name for the home of UK fusion research.

In 2014 UKAEA announced the creation of a new branch of research with the remote handling facilities created for JET becoming a new centre for robotics developed known as RACE (Remote Applications in Challenging Environments)


Authority site locations:

Historical site locations:


Main article: Dounreay

In the 1950s, the UK government was persuaded to invest in the development of fast breeder reactors as a more efficient means of generating electricity from the country's scarce supplies of uranium. Following early research at Harwell in Oxfordshire, the government in 1954 selected Dounreay in Caithness as the centre of research and development.

Three reactors, chemical plants and various laboratory and waste facilities were built there. The first nuclear reaction in Scotland occurred at Dounreay in a test cell in 1957 and the site's material test reactor was the first nuclear reactor in Scotland. The experimental fast breeder reactor, housed in a sphere, operated until 1977. In 1962, it became the first fast reactor in the world to supply electricity to a national grid, proving the concept.

A larger prototype fast reactor went critical at Dounreay in 1974, but hopes of commercial development of fast reactors in the UK receded in the 1980s. In 1988, the UK government announced fast reactors would not be required for the foreseeable future. Reactor operations ceased at Dounreay in 1994 and reprocessing of irradiated fuel came to a halt in 1996 as a result of a plant breakdown which the Government in 2001 decided not to repair.

An audit of safety by regulators in 1998 proved a turning point in the history of the site, signalling the end of all nuclear operations and the beginning of the site closure programme. The original timescale for decommissioning of 100 years has been reduced steadily. Currently, the clean-out and demolition of all the redundant facilities is scheduled for completion by 2025. Hazardous intermediate-level waste will remain in secure, above-ground stores beyond this date pending a national policy for its long-term management. Access to areas of land contaminated with radioactivity is likely to be restricted until 2300. There is a debate about whether to retain the sphere as an industrial and architectural monument to the site's leading world role in the 20th century.

The major hazards at Dounreay today consist of the liquid metals used as coolant in the fast reactors and the liquid wastes generated from reprocessing. Other clean-up tasks include an unlined vertical shaft used to dispose of intermediate-level waste until an explosion in 1977 and radioactive particles polluting the nearby seabed and beaches.

Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd (DSRL) manages the clean-up on behalf of the NDA. DSRL is part of UKAEA Ltd and is now owned by Babcock International. Annual turnover is approximately £150m a year and the site employs approximately 2000 people, representing one in every five jobs in the local economy. A partnership of public agencies has published an action plan to regenerate the local economy and end its dependence on the nuclear industry.

See also


  1. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 14 March 2012. Retrieved 26 March 2013.
  2. 1 2 3 "UKAEA's First 50 Years". Nuclear Engineering International. 5 November 2004. Retrieved 17 January 2014.
  3. UKAEA – The First Fifty Years, Andy Munn, http://www.caithness.org/fpb/dounreay/history/index.htm
  4. Walter C. Patterson (1985). Going Critical: An Unofficial History of British Nuclear Power (PDF). Paladin. ISBN 0-586-08516-5. Retrieved 12 June 2009. Additional link
  5. "History". UKAEA. Archived from the original on 5 January 2013.
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