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TLS: Research Brought to a Halt at Kew

TLS: Research Brought to a Halt at Kew

TLS: Research Brought to a Halt

The National Archives, Kew, is housed in a massive modernist structure behind a water feature. In order to do research there you use your reader’s ticket to sign in at one of the many computer terminals, reserve a seat at a desk in the reading room, then order up to twelve items – usually file folders, but sometimes bound volumes – which, in half an hour or forty-five minutes, appear in a cubbyhole near the reading room. The materials have identification numbers, commonly of the form XX #/####. The letters indicate the originating department, the numbers divisions of materials within that group.

For example, if you are interested in the history of science, you may wish to look up materials associated with Sir James Chadwick, the Nobel Prize winner, and discoverer of the neutron. Plug his name into the catalogue’s search feature: thirteen records are returned. The first, AB 16/405, is “Sir James Chadwick: film”. That is, the UK Atomic Energy Authority records, Files on Publicity and Censorship, a film made in 1947. Clicking on that, one finds that its legal status is a public record and its closure status is “Open Document, Open Description”. However, there is also a note stating: “This record is closed whilst access is under review”. The researcher is then invited to submit a Freedom of Information request.

Trying again, you notice that there is a record entitled “Transfer of Sir James Chadwick’s original notes on discovery of the neutron (1932) from Hammersmith Hospital to Churchill College, Cambridge”. Innocuous enough. Clicking on that you see that the record opening date was June 3, 2009 and that it, too, is listed as an “Open Document, Open Description”. But, there is also a note stating: “This record is closed whilst access is under review”. And again, the researcher is invited to submit a Freedom of Information request.

And so forth, for all the records with the AB and ES (Atomic Weapons Establishment) designation. The records of the Atomic Energy Authority concern the civilian nuclear energy programme. They were withdrawn last November. Those of the Atomic Weapons Establishment concern the development of Britain’s atomic weapons and the theoretical physics behind nuclear weapons, such as, apparently, the discovery of the neutron, or, given that remit, the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, and, following CIA phraseology, sources and methods of those. They were withdrawn in July. The records of the history of nuclear physics in the United Kingdom, among other topics, that were open just a few months ago are no longer open. This is very bad news for researchers pursuing any subject touching on these matters: the history of science, say, or the sociology of science; scientific policy; the Second World War; the influence of émigré scientists on British society in the 1930s and 40s, and so on. In my own area of interest, intelligence history, we find AB 4/399: “Szilard-Chalmers effect in permanganate solutions Author(s): E Broda”, of January, 1944, listed as “Open Document, Open Description”, but now “closed whilst access is under review”. (Englebert Broda was an Austrian Communist and likely part of the Comintern’s network of informants.)

This situation was first noticed by Geoffrey Chapman, a graduate student at King’s College London. Professor Jon Agar at University College London has contacted the Nuclear Archives, which referred him to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which told him, as it would, that “The NDA is absolutely committed to openness and transparency”.

According to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority the papers are to be taken to something called the Nucleus Archive, conveniently located near John O’Groats at the northern tip of Scotland. If you care to drive, you will know that you are there because that is where the road ends. The building, even more modernist than that at Kew, won the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland Andrew Doolan Best Building in Scotland Award for 2018. The relevant government website carries the note: “Access to nuclear documents via this facility is not yet available, but will become available over time”. Perhaps also a catalogue. And, again, “Documents can be requested through Freedom of Information request”. The result: instead of noticing while reading a file at your desk in Kew that there is another file that is of interest, requesting and receiving it in forty-five minutes, one can file a Freedom of Information request, wait weeks or months and, perhaps, gain access to a record; then, if one does receive it, and happens to find another file that is of interest, one can file another Freedom of Information request. As far as I know, no FOI requests for these records have been successful.

The NDA was established in 2005. Now, more than a decade later, we are told, “The NDA, Ministry of Defence and the Atomic Weapons Establishment are jointly undertaking a security review to ensure that it is appropriate for the records to remain in the public domain. As part of the review process, a collection of records . . . has been temporarily withdrawn from general access via The National Archive at Kew”. This has brought to a halt all research requiring access to these records.

The National Archives is an innocent party to this. It is simply following standard procedures. Nonetheless, it is a bad precedent that could, or rather, is, severely damaging its ability to fulfil its mission.


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