December 2021 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Royal Navy closing the doors of the world famous Royal Naval College (RNC), their training facility for over a century, for the last time. 

The University of Greenwich subsequently outbid their rivals to claim the riverside buildings and grounds as their new main campus, receiving their first students in 2001.

On the surface, the transition appeared to have proceeded smoothly. But in the bowels of one of the most significant buildings on the estate lurked a secret that threatened to derail the project. Even the European Commission felt compelled to take the United Kingdom to the European Court of Justice to uncover the truth of what lay hidden there.

Incredibly, the Royal Navy had left behind a nuclear reactor. 

Located within Greenwich Village, a densely populated south-east London neighbourhood, the buildings and piazzas that collectively make up the RNC were designed by the 17th Century architectural dream-team of Sir Christopher Wren and his infamous assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor. The RNC is a jewel in the crown of the designated Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is both Grade 1 listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

But despite all this, somebody decided that the basement of the 300 year old King William Building would be a suitable location for a 10kw Argonaut nuclear reactor known as JASON. 

Relocated from Langley, Berkshire to Greenwich, it was installed under a veil of secrecy during the depths of the Cold War for the purpose of training officers on nuclear submarine propulsion systems. Using 80% enriched uranium, a much higher grade than that used in commercial reactors, and close to the 90% required for the weapons-grade isotope, JASON was first taken critical in 1962, a technical term meaning the reactor was in steady, stable operation. It remained in constant use for over three decades, only being deactivated when the Royal Navy departed in 1996.

JASON’s existence during its operational phase was an open secret according to CND activists and long-term local residents, Judy and Mick Delap.

“We were aware that the reactor was right there on our doorstep, but people were much less cynical back then. We had been convinced that even in the worst possible ‘what if’ situation, the risks were low.” says Mick, former BBC World Service producer. “Despite our concerns over nuclear safety, the threat from the USSR was very real. There were worrying times, but looking back now, we were probably too trusting and will probably never really know what the repercussions of an accident might have been. ”

Referencing his copy of Peter Hennessey’s book, The Silent Deep, Mick continues:1962 was the year that Harold Macmillan and John F Kennedy signed the Nassau Agreement, ‘sparking an explosion of activity in the Admiralty.’

The Nassau agreement meant the UK would abandon plans to further develop their own nuclear submarine technology and instead the US would supply the UK with nuclear-missiles for their existing nuclear-powered Polaris submarines, hence an urgent need for nuclear trained officers.

Judy Delap recalls standing on bridges over the A2 with huge banners as nuclear waste passed below, transported by road. “We were busy protesting at other key sites like Greenham Common, so the Greenwich reactor was considered less of a priority.” 

But that did not stop her from trying to bring attention to the situation locally. “I remember being arrested and placed in a cell for ‘shadow painting’ human images on the Trafalgar Road in Greenwich to commemorate Hiroshima Day.”

Caroline Wilson, another Greenwich resident and former freelance journalist at local newspaper the Mercury in the 70s and 80s, attempted to write about the reactor on a number of occasions but always found the story subjected to a D-Notice, an official notification not to publish on the grounds of national security.  She recalls one shocking titbit of information: “I remember talking to a naval officer at the time who told me that every week the waste material was placed in a box and taken on the back seat of his Morris Minor to exchange for replacement nuclear fuel.”

With the University of Greenwich secured as a new tenant for the premises, the major task of removing JASON safely and securely, but without damaging the fabric of the historical building, proved to be challenging. It would be the first ever attempt in the UK to dismantle and remove a nuclear reactor. 

In 1998, in the midst of the decommissioning process and for the first time in JASON’s history, a public forum was held between Ministry of Defence experts and local residents to discuss any concerns. During the meeting, comparisons were made to the terrifying events in Chernobyl twelve years earlier, but the consensus seems to have been that all parties wanted JASON removed as quickly as possible.

The decommission process took three years, and when it was finally completed in 1999, nearly 300 tons of radioactive waste of varying levels had been removed from the site, including the huge concrete and steel protective shields that had been irradiated by decades of neutron bombardment.

Ironically, Greenwich Council, as was the fashion of local councils throughout the 60s and 70s, had declared itself a Nuclear Free Zone in 1963, a year after JASON went live. My repeated requests to talk to somebody from the council and to look through their archives for any reference to the reactor were met with a refusal and an insistence that they retained no records whatsoever.

Likewise, the Greenwich Foundation, created in 1997 to take over responsibility for overseeing the protection of the RNC estate, has no records, despite being in control during the essential decommissioning years.

In reality, it seems that because the reactor had a military purpose, the local council had no involvement in any part of its life cycle, and that’s also the reason why the European Commision failed in their attempt at the ECJ to force the UK’s hand to provide detailed records on the operation and decommissioning process. The court agreed with the UK government that reactors designated for military use were not subject to the European Treaty governing nuclear waste.

Today, twenty five years after the Royal Navy’s departure, students and tourists are the beneficiaries of Wren’s masterpiece. Stepping inside the gloriously captivating Painted Hall, it is difficult to imagine a more unlikely and inappropriate location for a nuclear reactor. Despite a quarter of a century having passed since it was operational, scant information is available in the public domain regarding the reactor’s purpose, operation and decommission. An air of mystery still lingers and maybe the truth will never be known as to what really occurred in that 300 year old Baroque nuclear chamber.

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