The University of York is being directly funded by the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), a Nouse investigation can reveal. AWE is the United Kingdom’s manufacturer and stockpiler of thermonuclear weapons, raising questions about the ethics of the University’s investment practices.
A Freedom of Information request submitted by Nouse found that the York Plasma Institute – the University’s plasma and fusion research centre – has been receiving funds from AWE since the institute’s inception in 2012. The money received has been used to provide students with the training necessary to work on nuclear weapons, even though the work conducted at York does not specifically pertain to weapons research.
The FOI also revealed that other nuclear weapons research facilities from the United States – including General Atomics and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – also fund the institute.
The science concerning the development of nuclear weapons stems predominantly from plasma physics and nuclear research. Since the advent of thermonuclear weapons with the hydrogen bomb, nuclear fusion has been extensively researched at classified military facilities all over the world. But nuclear fusion is also hoped to eventually provide a source of clean renewable energy, along with many other beneficial breakthroughs in fields ranging from medicine to astrophysics.
The trouble is that it is impossible to conduct many fusion research projects without access to (and collaboration with) expensive facilities that also work on nuclear weapons. This places physicists in a difficult position, in which funding comes from weapons manufacturers, even if their work has nothing at all to do with the development of thermonuclear warheads.
The issue is complicated further by the fact that several of the York Plasma Institute’s former students have gone on to work for AWE. In effect, the University has facilitated these scientists’ training. All funds received by the University pass through the Due Diligence Policy, which states: “[the Unversity undertakes that] all donations are made for purpose consistent with the University’s ethical principles”.
There are two main ways that researchers pursue nuclear fusion: “Magnetic Confinement Fusion” (MCF), in which electromagnets confine hot plasmas inside a device called a tokamak. This is the method that currently holds the most promise for developing a sustainable energy source from fusion. The other method for achieving fusion is ‘Inertial Confinement Fusion’ (ICF), in which high-powered lasers are focused onto a tiny target, causing it to compress to the point that hydrogen isotopes begin to fuse. ICF has much more relevance to the development of weapons.
Prof Howard Wilson, the head of the York Plasma Institute, said: “The philosophy of the York Plasma Institute is to give its students and staff the knowledge and freedom to pursue all areas of plasma physics and fusion research, which has important applications as diverse as healthcare, advanced manufacturing, astrophysics and fusion energy.
“None of the funding we receive is for weapons research. The funding we receive from AWE is all focused on basic science questions that underpin astrophysics, advanced manufacturing, planetary physics and fusion energy – nuclear weapons work is classified and we would not be allowed to do it. It is important to note, however, that the advanced physics knowledge gained from classified work into laser-plasmas at AWE and other national organisations enables the UK, US, France and others to advance their national security agendas without the need for atomic weapons testing – this is an important part of the UK non-proliferation strategy.
“In providing funding to YPI, AWE’s motivation is to raise awareness of the importance and richness of laser-plasma research across a range of applications, enabling students to make an informed career choice. We need access to high power lasers to do this research, which benefits from the key Orion laser facility operated by AWE.
“We provide our postgraduate students with the knowledge to make an informed career choice – in the end it is for them to decide whether they support the work of AWE in minimising international nuclear proliferation. Their choice of career should be guided by their personal ethics, and they should not feel pressure from educational institutions to make a decision one way or another.”