17 August 2020

It is with great sadness to report that a long-time and greatly valued friend of Oxford Research Group (ORG), Professor Frank Barnaby, died on 1 August at the age of 92. Frank was remarkable in so many ways, including his pivotal role in the evolution of ORG's work on nuclear weapons policy over the best part of two decades.

Frank was a nuclear physicist by training, working at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston in the 1950s on the early UK nuclear weapons programme, including an involvement in atom bomb tests. As the government developed the much more powerful thermonuclear hydrogen bomb, he left Aldermaston in 1957 and moved to a Medical Research Council programme at University College London, developing a life-long commitment to nuclear arms control and disarmament.

In 1967 he became Executive Secretary of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, the unique trans-national endeavour that sought to maintain relations between scientists across the East West divide. The Pugwash movement was extraordinarily successful, during very difficult periods of East-West relations, keeping channels of communication open across the Iron Curtain and doing much to ensure that at least some of the dangers of the Cold War nuclear confrontation were mitigated. 

In 1971, Frank was appointed Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a post he held for ten years.   At that time, and under his leadership, SIPRI was the world's main centre for peace research, publishing leading analyses of world militarisation. He also committed much of his time to lecturing on the dangers of the nuclear arms race which, by the 1980s, was becoming increasingly unstable and fed into a public concern bordering on deep unease over the risk of nuclear war.   When he gave a lecture in 1980 to students at Bradford University, a technical university that was also developing a School of Peace Studies, one of those present later described the experience: 

He held his audience enthralled as he talked in precise terms of the scientific background to the nuclear arms race, of the dangers of first strike weapons, the horrifying effects of nuclear explosions and of the consequences of uncontrolled crisis escalation. 

The University later awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Science.

Over more than five decades Frank worked on nuclear disarmament issues, especially the control of nuclear proliferation, including periods as Guest Professor at the Free University, Amsterdam between 1981–1985, and Visiting Professor at the University of Minnesota in 1985. He was widely acknowledged as a world authority on the subject, with a prodigious output, not just in terms of books and papers, but through innumerable public lectures and radio and television interviews.

His close association with the Oxford Research Group started in 1994 when he joined as Scientific and Technical Consultant on nuclear issues. In this capacity Frank authored or edited numerous reports and engaged with policy-makers, MPs, and journalists on: the risks of nuclear terrorism in Britain; the future of the British Trident nuclear weapons system; the British government’s policy for dealing with its growing stockpile of excess plutonium; the future of plutonium reprocessing at British Nuclear Fuels Sellafield site; the proliferation risks of making and exporting Mixed Oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel; controlling the spread of fissile materials for use in nuclear weapons; the weaponisation of space; the potential for Japan to develop nuclear weapons; the North Korean nuclear crisis; Iran’s nuclear-related activities; and new nuclear weapon-related developments in the United States and the UK. 

His work for ORG in the early 2000s included research reports on: the consequences of Iran’s nuclear programme and the possible consequences of a military strike; the proliferation and security consequences of building a new generation of nuclear power plants in the UK, and of a worldwide “nuclear renaissance”; the options open to the British government on the possible replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system, particularly the option to become a non-nuclear weapon state;  the safeguards system of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the agency that verifies countries commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); and resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis.

His was a unique independent scientific voice on the grey area between civilian and military uses of nuclear energy, taking a position which, especially in the many tense periods of the Cold War, required no little courage.  Of his long association with ORG, the Founding Director, Dr Scilla Elworthy writes:

He was pivotal in the development of ORG; without his knowledge and his reputation we could not have reached the people who eventually came to Charney Manor and many other discussions. He was also a constant source of key information, which steered us through many challenging moments.

I was often in awe of the way his gravitas won the argument; he had a dignity and a certainty, borne of decades of accumulating knowledge, that could not be gain-said.

He also had such a great sense of humour, to bring us back to our senses when things got too much.

The depth of his knowledge was in fact the rock on which ORG’s work was built.

He also showed us all how absurd and impossible the nuclear ‘competition’ had become, and how deadly.   We are all in his debt, and I believe his life’s work saved many, many lives.

Interviews with Frank Barnaby by TalkWorks

This obituary was written by Paul Rogers, ORG's Senior Fellow. The video was shot and edited by Rosie Houldsworth, Director of Talkworks