Cloak and dagger: geochemistry and the Atomic Energy Division

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From: Wilson, H.E. Down to earth - one hundred and fifty years of the British Geological Survey. Edinburgh:Scottish Academic Press, 1985.
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XIV Cloak and dagger:geochemistry and the Atomic Energy Division. Chapter-head sketch by Robery Geary.

XIV Cloak and dagger:geochemistry and the Atomic Energy Division[edit]

One of the first people recruited by De la Beche to the infant Survey was Richard Phillips, one of the founder members of the Geological Society and soon to be President of the Chemical Society. Phillips was the curator of the new Museum of Practical Geology, but his primary task was as a chemist, to make analyses of rocks and minerals. Though chemical analysis in 1841 was unsophisticated by modern standards it is significant that, in the earliest days, De la Beche recognised the interdependence of the two disciplines.

After Phillips' death, on the eve of the opening of the new Jermyn Street Museum, Lyon Playfair became Chemist. He joined the survey in 1845 as Assistant Chemist, his family connections with Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, having doubtless facilitated the appointment, but he was indeed a brilliant scientist and was Professor of Chemistry in the School of Mines in Jermyn Street until 1853 when he became Secretary for Science in the Department of Science and Art — becoming Baron Playfair in 1892. It may be conjectured that the continued support of the Geological Survey through the second half of the ninteenth century owed something to this distinguished 'old boy'. Flett records that the rooms occupied by Playfair in the Jermyn Street building were 'handed over to the palaeontologists' and Sir James Stubblefield recalls that a pane of the window in his room in the 1920s still had Playfair's name scratched on the glass. The pane was removed to the new Exhibition Road Museum in 1935!

One of Playfair's earliest tasks was to analyse coals to decide which were the most suitable for the new 'steam navy', an exercise which was to cover much practical testing of the fuels in boilers, apart from chemical tests. In the preparation for the Great Exhibition of 1851, he was appointed one of the Commissioners and certainly in this case De la Beche was overtaken by this notable high flyer.

After the removal of the Department of Chemistry of the School of Mines from Jermyn Street in 1872, interest in the subject in the Survey seems to have waned. Geikie is recorded as having 'installed Grant Wilson in Edinburgh in a makeshift laboratory to execute rock analysis', but this seems to have been a fairly low-key operation. In 1898 William Pollard was appointed Chemist to the Survey but his facilities were, as Flett records, 'depressing from lack of accommodation and apparatus'. Nevertheless he became interested in the geochemistry of coals and, with Strahan, produced a notable study of South Wales coals in 1908 — shades of Playfair in 1848.

After Pollard's retiral in 1913 arrangements were made with the Government Chemist for a small group of his staff to be seconded to the Survey for chemical work. This arrangement continued until the merger of home and overseas surveys in 1966 brought the Mineral Resources Division of the latter, with its Mineralogical and Chemical, Spectographic and Ceramic Laboratories in its new building in Gray's Inn Road, into the combined organisation. The Government Chemist's staff returned to their parent body in 1967. Tribute must be paid to the expert and willing service provided by these chemists for 50 years, particularly the work of C 0 Harvey and G A Sergeant, who were in charge for the post-war period.

The atomic bomb was one of the best kept secrets of the Second World War and its development, with the need for the hitherto little-regarded metal, uranium, was at first in the hands of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in the shape of the Tube Alloys Directorate. The first Geological Survey involvement, which must have caused a few raised eyebrows in 1941,was a request for a precis on world resources of uranium and so secret was the subject that there seems to be no record whatsoever in the Survey archives of this or subsequent requests.

By 1944 the number of enquiries generated by the new atomic energy field was such that DSIR asked the Director, Bailey, for a full-time geological advisor and C.F. Davidson was allotted this role. When the responsibility for research and development and raw material procurement passed to the Ministry of Supply, Davidson's 'Special Investigations Unit' was retained as the authority on radioactive ores and was paid for by the Ministry — the first long-term 'commissioned research' in the history of the Survey.

By 1948 the Unit had become the Special Investigations Division, the first time this term had been used in the Geological Survey, though the scientific staff never exceeded 16 in number. It was charged with advising the Ministry on the discovery and assessment of uranium and thorium ores which could supply the British requirement and, at the request of Colonial or Dominion governments, to investigate occurrences of these minerals and to undertake analyses of samples submitted by governments, mining companies or prospectors. In 1948 over one thousand such samples were examined. It is difficult to recall now that detecting instruments such as portable Geiger Counters were at that time virtually unknown and field prospectors had to send samples for laboratory testing on the basis of their hand-lens diagnosis of unusual minerals. Indeed one of the most important early tasks of the Division was the development, in association with the Electronics Division of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, of hand-held rate-meters and other diagnostic equipment. At the same time sensitive chemical analytical methods were being developed by the Chemical Research Laboratory at Teddington and the Survey contributed to this work in several ways.

In the first years of the new Division, Davidson visited virtually all known occurences of radioactive ores in the free world, particularly in Canada, Australia, South Africa and the USA, and built up a close liaison with staff of the United States Geological Survey and the Geological Survey of Canada engaged in similar work. Single-handed at first he built up his unit slowly as new recruits became available after the war and it was six strong when first listed in the Annual Report for 1947, though no mention of their activities was made until 1948.

For the last years of the forties and the first half of the fifties the Division, renamed the Atomic Energy Division in 1951, was at full stretch on ad hoc investigations overseas, evaluating deposits of uranium and thorium. Though work took place in many countries the first main target was in Portugal where four divisional geologists — Bennett, Cameron, Campbell and Ostle — worked for several years. The first two went in 1950 to join the staff of the Companhie Portuguesa de Radium but the Survey interest continued until full scale yellow-cake production started in 1952. Other major projects included work in conjunction with the Geological Survey of Canada on the Blind River uranium field in Ontario; with the Bureau of Mineral Resources and the Australian Atomic Energy Commission on the development of the important Mary Kathleen deposit in Queensland and, with the Geological Survey of South Africa, on the possibility of recovering uranium as a by-product of gold mining on the Witswatersrand. The Exhibition Road laboratories continued to do radiometric assays on a torrent of samples from all over the world, reaching a peak throughput of 12,000 in 1952 and developing a range of new techniques.

In 1954 responsibility for the development of atomic energy passed from the Ministry of Supply to the new United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority who agreed to continue to pay for the work of the Division, which at this time had neared its peak with twelve scientific staff. In the following year the UKAEA opened offices in Salisbury (Harare) in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Dodomo in Tanganyika (Tanzania) staffed partly by seconded Survey staff, to encourage prospecting activity in the Colonies.

Apart from the joint development, with Harwell, of ever more versatile light-weight rate-meters and sophisticated car-borne and airborne radiometric equipment, including down-hole probes for logging deep boreholes, the fifties saw the gradual introduction of fundamental research into the mineralogy and chemistry of radioactive elements. The encouragement of individual prospectors continued with the publication of prospector's handbooks and exhibitions of radioactive minerals in the Exhibition Road Museum and in many overseas museums. This period saw the development of what was to be a protracted scientific debate on the origins of the Witswatersrand and the importance of chemical adsorption as a factor governing the geochemical distribution of radioactive elements; the latter producing an interesting spin-off in the debate on the Piltdown Man' remains, where it was shown that parts of the skull and teeth had different geological and geochemical histories.

In 1955 Davidson left the Survey for the Chair of Geology at St Andrews, and was succeeded as head of the Division by S.H.U.Bowie. In 1956, with the scientific staff having reached a maximum of 15, the Division moved out of the various parts of the Museum building, including cabins on the roof, to a building in Young Street, Kensington. Bowie reported, in that year, that supplies of uranium for the UKAEA were now adequate in the short term and the direction of work would thereafter move to fundamental research. A further period of intense mineral assessment work from 1959 to 1962 was centred on the need for beryllium, suddenly favoured as the material for 'canning' fuel for advanced gas-cooled reactors. This encouraged the development of a portable beryllium monitor (known colloquially as the terylometer) which was used extensively at home and in Africa, particularly in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

By 1963, the world supply of uranium had outstripped demand and the requirements of UKAEA, and its financial support, were declining fast. Staff were transferred to geological survey work in Britain and the strength of the Division fell to eight Scientific Officers who were mainly employed on studies of the potash-rich Fucoid Beds in north-west Scotland and the development of a portable X-ray fluorescence analyser for use in determining the metal content of samples in the field. A watching brief was maintained on developments in the uranium field, especially in respect of new techniques, and an expertise in the application of geochemical surveys was retained.

At this time, with the continuing reduction of UKAEA interest and rundown of the Division's staff, the future seemed bleak, but relief was at hand!

As described in the chapter on Overseas Geological Surveys, that organisation and the Atomic Energy Division were reviewed by the Brundrett Committee and their amalgamation was recommended.

The recommendations of the report were implemented in the following year and in June 1965 the Division came under the control of Dr S H Shaw, formerly Director of Overseas Geological Surveys and now in charge of 'Overseas and Mineral Surveys'. Two years later in the reorganisation of the new Institute of Geological Sciences, the rump of the Atomic Energy Division was renamed the Radiogeology and Rare Minerals Unit and grouped with the mineralogical and chemical laboratories of Overseas Geological Surveys in a new Geochemical Division. This included three new units — Analytical and Ceramics; Mineralogy; Isotope Geology staffed largely by ex-Overseas personnel. The Mineralogy Unit, renamed Applied Mineralogy Unit in 1977, and the Analytical and Ceramics Unit, renamed Analytical Chemistry Unit in 1979, were both developments of the Chemical and Testing Section and, as their names imply, provided analytical and diagonostic services to the rest of the Institute.

The precursor of the Isotope Geology Unit was set up in the Department of Geology at Oxford in 1959 to provide an age-dating service for Overseas Geological Surveys and remained there for ten years during the development of geochronology in Britain, to the mutual benefit of its staff and the University workers. After the formation of the Geochemistry Division major new items of equipment such as mass spectrometers were installed in the Young Street office in Kensington and for a few years the unit's efforts were divided between Oxford, Kensington and Gray's Inn Road, where sample preparation was carried out. In 1969 the Oxford team were moved to Young Street and two years later the Unit moved again, to refurbished laboratories in the Gray's Inn Road building.

In its first years the Isotope Geology Unit worked exclusively on rocks from overseas, but after 1967 an increasing though always subordinate part of its effort has been on material from the United Kingdom. A member of this unit, Mrs D P F Darbyshire, was the first woman member of staff to work overseas, in 1977.

In 1968 the Atomic Energy Authority gave the new division a contract to investigate the uranium resources of the United Kingdom and for much of the next five years the component units devoted much of their effort to work in Scotland, Wales and the South-west of England. Apart from field sampling and laboratory testing much work was done on the development of sampling techniques and instrumentation to locate hidden deposits of radioactive minerals.

The new techniques, particularly stream-sediment sampling, showed that anomalous concentrations of zinc, copper, molybdenum and other metals could be detected and a primary geochemical reconnaissance survey of Northern Scotland was started which ran concurrently with the uranium work. The Radioactive and Rare Minerals Unit was renamed Radioactive and Metalliferous Minerals Unit in 1970.

With the implementation of the Rothschild recommendations on commissioned research in 1973 the 'transferred funds' at the disposal of the Department of Trade and Industry were applied, in large part, to the work of RMMU. The Geochemical Reconnaissance Programme was to be continued and the uranium work was to be succeeded by a new Mineral Reconnaissance Programme, planned to locate possible mineral targets for exploration by commercial operators and thus encourage mineral working in Britain. Both these programmes involved a wide range of units within, and without, the Institute. The geochemical programme used the Analytical and Ceramics Unit and the Experimental Cartography Unit (NERC); the Mineral Reconnaissance Programme involved the Field Divisions, Applied Geophysics, Analytical and Ceramics, Mineralogy, Isotope Geology and Mineral Intelligence units. Both programmes were the forerunners of the multidisciplinary Regional Geology projects introduced in 1982.

Work on both programmes continued through the next decade with the continued support of the Department of Industry, successsors to the Department of Trade & Industry. The Geochemical Reconnaissance Programme moved steadily south across the Scottish highlands and the results were published as geochemical atlases on the 1:250,000 scale with the distribution of up to 19 elements shown on separate sheets with relative abundance shown by lines of differing length.

The Mineral Reconnaissance Programme, which had started on a regional basis, was reorientated in 1977 to six target-directed projects aimed at different types of mineralisation. In this year, too, the lead unit changed its name, once again, to Metalliferous Minerals and Applied Geochemistry Unit and for five years became part of the short-lived Special Surveys Division.

The newly directed programme had a notable success in the location of the major baryte-base metal occurrence near Aberfeldy, and also produced a steady dozen or so reports on other prospects each year, many of which were followed up by the minerals industry.

At the time of writing (Autumn 1984) these programmes continue with Department of Industry support; though as with all departmentally-funded work, they live from year to year. The main geochemical laboratory base continues to be in Grays Inn Road, though the stated intention to move it to Keyworth in a 'Phase II' operation is still official policy. If the concept of a single 'centre of excellence' is to succeed it is to be hoped that this will be achieved.