London’s Secret Nuclear Reactor
For more than 30 years, between 1962 and 1996, a nuclear reactor sat at the heart of London tantalizingly close to a busy thoroughfare and to people’s homes and public buildings. Its existence so close to the metropolis was kept a secret from the public, because to tell the truth would have been extremely controversial.
The reactor was located at the basement of King William Building at the old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. The Royal Naval College was established in 1873 and was housed in a 17th century building complex designed by the highly acclaimed English architect of the time, Sir Christopher Wren. The buildings originally housed the Greenwich Hospital—a retirement home for disabled sailors of the Royal Navy. The word “hospital” merely meant a place providing hospitality. After the hospital closed in 1869, these buildings became the Royal Naval College where navy officers were trained.
In the early 1960s, the Royal Naval College acquired a low-power nuclear reactor nicknamed JASON to educate and train military and civilian personnel involved in the naval nuclear submarine propulsion program. The Argonaut series 10 kW research reactor was previously operated by the Hawker Siddley Nuclear Power Corporation at Langley.
Compared to those in nuclear power stations, JASON was a small reactor measuring 12 feet high and was surrounded by more than 300 tons of steel and concrete cladding to prevent stray neutrons from escaping. Despite its small size, Jason was potent. According to the Independent, JASON used weapons-grade uranium 90 per cent enriched, which made it thirty times more radioactive than that used in commercial reactors. It was like a ticking time bomb. Surely, the Navy wasn’t going to tell Londoners they have a nuclear bomb for a neighbor. So JASON was kept a secret.