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Why Would You Shake an Atomic Bomb?

Atomic Weapons Research Establishment test buildings and associated structures
Orford Beach, Orford Ness, Suffolk

Scheduled: 2014
NHLE entry: Listing details AWRE buildings at Orford Ness

Orford Ness Spit
Orford Ness Spit

Britain detonated its first atomic bomb on 3 October 1952. It was a carefully protected scientific device that needed to be 'weaponised', before the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) could issue it to the Royal Air Force. To do this, the bomb was subjected to a myriad of scientific experiments to test its safety and robustness.

In 1955, a series of structures appeared along an isolated shingle beach at Orford Ness, Suffolk: simply put, they were built to shake atomic bombs.

Weaponising the Blue Danube

Once the weapon had been assembled, the AWRE had to make sure that it was safe to store and handle and, ultimately, was robust enough to survive the rigours of a flight to its target.

Gently shaken for hours

The structures that the AWRE built at Orford Ness were based around the Large Vibration Laboratory. Its function was to replicate the physical stresses the bomb would experience in an aircraft's bomb bay.

One chamber simulated the rapid temperature changes a bomb would undergo during its journey from runway to cruising height and to final descent. In another structure, the bomb was gently shaken for hours to imitate the vibration of an aircraft in flight. A final bay carried out drop tests to check that mishaps during ground handling wouldn't result in a premature detonation.

Pit of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Orford Ness, Suffolk, Large Vibration Laboratory.
Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Orford Ness, Suffolk, Large Vibration Laboratory. In this pit, atomic bombs were gently vibrated for many hours to simulate the stresses they would undergo in an aircraft's bomb bay. © Historic England DP 068442.

A stunning landscape preserving a nuclear past

Today the AWRE test buildings and associated structures still survive on the beach - a stunning landscape comprising 10 miles of remote shingle spit, which is now a National Trust nature reserve. They have been scheduled in recognition of their rarity and national historic importance.

It is hard to emphasise enough how important the outcome of the AWRE's tests were to British politics and international status in the 1950s. Until Britain successfully demonstrated that it could drop an atomic bomb from an aircraft, it couldn't be regarded as a true nuclear power. The work at Orford Ness was given even greater urgency by moves to introduce a global test ban treaty and by Britain's desire to restore close nuclear cooperation with the United States.

The signing of the Mutual Defence Agreement in 1958 confirmed the renewed nuclear partnership between Britain and the US, one that still endures. It can be argued that this agreement was partly achieved by the efforts of the scientists and engineers working at Orford Ness.

Visiting Orford Ness today

Orford Ness has now been opened to the public by the National Trust as a nature reserve and site of national military interest. You can find out more about visiting the site on the Find out more about visiting Orford Ness via the National Trust website.

For further information about heritage assessment at Orford Ness, read our research report.

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