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Bristol University: £3m in six years from Atomic Weapons Establishment


University’s ‘strategic alliance’ with AWE, which maintains and develops the UK’s nuclear weapons, continues.

The University of Bristol received over £3m from the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) between 2010-2016, according to figures released under the Freedom of Information act.

AWE develops and maintains the UK’s nuclear warheads. The private institution, which has its main site in Aldermaston, Berkshire, is funded by the Ministry of Defence but is managed by a consortium of Jacobs Engineering, Lockheed Martin and Serco.

The figures bring to light again the controversial relationship between the university and the secretive AWE. The Nuclear Information Service and Medact first uncovered the extent of AWE’s links with academia in 2014. The research found that it funded over 50 universities, but held long-term “strategic alliances” with five, one of which is Bristol.

The new figures show the amount received by the university has varied between the highest amount of £627,970 in the 2010-11 academic year, and the lowest of £357,022 in the 2014-15 academic year. Asked about the uses of the funding, the majority of which is for the faculty of physics, the university said it predominantly funded scholarships, fellowships, conference attendance, research and ‘school engagement activities’.

However, the relationships between AWE and universities like Bristol is opposed by anti-militarism campaign groups and campaigns within the science establishment such as Scientists for Global Responsibility.

It taps in to wider questions concerning the widespread military funding of university science departments, and of the ethics or necessity of maintaining the UK’s nuclear deterrent at all in the context of international treaties aimed at eventually decommissioning the world’s nuclear weaponry.

Dr Stuart Parkinson, director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, says that even if the high-end, classified research is being undertaken in AWE’s own labs, that doesn’t mean the strategic partner institutions are not involved.

“If they are doing the basic research and helping develop the science and nuclear equipment, and then supplying students who then go on to become researchers who want to work for AWE then you’re very much supporting the whole system which enables British nuclear weapons to operate and for new ones to be developed, and for the dangerous system that we have to be perpetuated,” he says.

Dr Parkinson also points out that public money, which is currently funneled through the AWE to universities for nuclear military purposes, could be spent on other much needed research, such as climate change.

A spokesperson for the university claimed that no one should be perturbed about the university’s links with developing atomic weapons.

“This is absolutely not the case. The University of Bristol will never engage in weapons activity, nuclear or otherwise,” said the spokesperson.

The spokesperson continued: “AWE’s remit covers more than the nuclear deterrent; it includes nuclear non-proliferation to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament.

“Much of the work we do with AWE relates to non-proliferation. For example, seismic monitoring to detect earthquakes which could be a consequence of nuclear testing; ‘nuclear forensics’ whereby new techniques are developed to map out the history of materials; and material detection through the use of cosmic rays which reduces the prospect of nuclear materials being transported undetected.”

The university claims it only proposes research projects to AWE that it wants to do to further its own research objectives. But Dr Parkinson is unconvinced that the relationship is truly that detached.

“If you were studying this stuff through another route, you would probably take different research questions and you wouldn’t have a major nuclear weapons manufacturer having a major say in what those research questions are,” he argues.

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