History of AWRE on Orford Ness

The pagodas on Orford Ness

The 1950s saw the construction of specialised facilities to exploit new post-war technologies such as nuclear power. AWRE Orfordness was one of only a few sites in the UK, and indeed the world, where purpose-built facilities were created for testing the components of nuclear weapons. At the height of the Cold War AWRE and the Royal Aircraft Establishment used Orford Ness for developmental work on the atomic bomb.

Environmental testing of nuclear components

Initial work on the atomic bomb concentrated on recording the flight of the weapon and monitoring the electronics within it during flight, but much of the work involved environmental testing, which in itself was being developed and advanced. Although built and developed specifically for the testing of nuclear weapons, by the 1960s efforts were being made to find commercial markets for the site's capabilities.
Between 1953 and 1966 the six large test cells and most of the other buildings on the shingle around them were built to carry out environmental tests on the atomic bomb. These tests were designed to mimic the rigours to which a weapon might be subjected before detonation, and included vibration, extremes of temperature, shocks and G forces.
Although no nuclear material was said to be involved, the high explosive initiator was present and a test failure might have resulted in a catastrophic explosion. For this reason the tests were controlled remotely and the huge labs were designed to absorb and dissipate an explosion in the event of an accident.


Perhaps the most impressive buildings from this period are two of the test labs - the so-called 'Pagodas' - which have become such well-known landmarks on this part of the coast. The work was secret although details of Orford Ness' involvement with the research and development of the British atomic bomb may become more available over the next decades and may illustrate the priority and significance this project had to the government in the post-war years.
Amongst the atomic experimental sites Orford Ness is perhaps the most architecturally dramatic and remains the only one allowing general public access at the present time. The AWRE ceased work on the site in 1971.