January 2008

Obituary Published in The Daily Telegraph 27th February, 2008

Sir John Hill, who has died aged 86, was the leader of the British nuclear industry as chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority and of two of its commercial offshoots, British Nuclear Fuels and Amersham International.

Sir John Hill: far too many ostriches think that Britain can live on a buried treasure of fossil fuel

Hill's appointment to run the AEA - by Tony Benn when he was minister of technology in 1967 - marked a shift in the prime focus of the British nuclear industry from the creation of weapons of deterrence to the commercialisation of nuclear power.

Hill's predecessor, the distinguished scientist Lord Penney, had worked on the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos and had run the Aldermaston weapons research establishment.

Hill was also a physicist by background, but came to the AEA chair at the age of 46 with the reputation of a modern businessman and top-class man-manager who had made a notable success of the production and reprocessing of nuclear fuels at AEA sites such as Windscale, in Cumbria, and Capenhurst in Cheshire.

The profitable fuels business was hived off into a new company, British Nuclear Fuels, in 1971, with Hill as its chairman.

The smaller radiochemical research arm of the authority was also turned into a stand-alone business and became, as Amersham International, one of the first state entities to be successfully privatised by Margaret Thatcher's government in 1982; again Hill was chairman, a post he held until 1988.

In its central role of leading the development of British nuclear power generation, however, the AEA was caught in interminable political wrangles throughout Hill's tenure, which ended in 1980.
The argument boiled down to a choice between steam-generating heavy water reactors (of which Dounreay was the forerunner and in which British manufacturers claimed a world lead) and pressurised water reactors designed by Westinghouse Corporation of America.
Progress towards a new generation of British-designed and built nuclear plants had stalled by 1974, when Hill and other industry leaders supported a switch to the American design - but Lord Carrington, Edward Heath's energy minister, held out in favour of buying British. Labour returned to power shortly afterwards, and Tony Benn also argued against the American design.
But Hill reconfirmed his view in a report to Benn in 1976, in which he argued that the increased availability of natural gas as a power source, and the rising projected cost of the British reactors, made the original programme uneconomic. The net result was that no new nuclear power stations were built until after Hill's time - when Sizewell, with a Westinghouse reactor, went ahead in the early 1980s.

Throughout these debates Hill treated the views of his opponents with patience and respect. But he defended his industry vehemently against those who, on grounds of safety, opposed it in its entirety. There were, he declared in 1979, "far too many ostriches" who believed that Britain could continue to live on "a buried treasure of fossil fuel".

On the especially sensitive issue of the disposal of nuclear waste, he said that the industry itself, by seeking perfection, had led the public to believe the problem to be worse than it really was: "To say in one breath that [nuclear waste] is not dangerous but that we want to bury it 1,000 feet deep does not sound convincing. Our own caution leads to disbelief."

John McGregor Hill was born in Chester on February 21 1921, the son of a schools' inspector. The family moved to Richmond-upon-Thames, where he went to school; he took a First in Physics at King's College, London, in two years, before serving in the RAF from 1941 to 1946 as an officer in the radar branch.

He returned to academe to take a doctorate at St John's College, Cambridge, working in the Cavendish Laboratory, and subsequently to teach Physics at London University.

In 1950 Hill joined what was then the department of atomic energy in the Ministry of Supply, and took up his first appointment at Windscale.

After the formation of the Atomic Energy Authority in 1954 he was its assistant director of technical policy, based at Risley in Lancashire; he became technical director and subsequently managing director of its production group, and became a member of the authority in 1964.

After leaving the AEA, Hill was chairman of Aurora Holdings, a Sheffield-based engineering group, and of Rea Brothers, a City investment firm. He was president of the British Nuclear Forum from 1984 to 1992.

Hill was knighted in 1969. He received the Melchett Medal of the Institute of Energy in 1974 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1981.

A keen golfer, he was captain and president of the Royal Mid-Surrey club.

Sir John Hill, who died on January 14, married, in 1947, Nora Hellett; they had two sons and a daughter.