Frank Barnaby obituary

Radiation physicist at Aldermaston who went on to warn of the dangers posed by the civil and military uses of nuclear energy

The nuclear weapons scientist Frank Barnaby, who has died aged 92, became one of the most effective critics of the international arms race. As the cold war superpowers competed with ever more advanced weaponry to wage a war that could never be won, Barnaby helped amass an arsenal of reliable information and informed argument to keep an anxious public aware of the deadly devices being developed supposedly to keep the world safe.

By the close of the cold war and the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 he and others had assembled an informal international bureaucracy of peace and provided the intellectual ammunition to persuade politicians, military and public to accept a dramatic reduction in the nuclear weaponry.

He contributed dozens of articles to New Scientist and the Guardian, all of them highlighting the rapid advance in technologies of mass destruction and the mechanisms that could spark global thermonuclear war. His persuasive arguments used only the information to hand, and calm reasoning.

In the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s government in Britain, and Ronald Reagan’s in the US, global investment in the military was huge. Even before a sharp rise in US spending in 1980, military activities worldwide consumed $1m every minute. US forces already used 10% of all the aluminium, copper, lead, zinc, nickel, molybdenum, tin, chromium, iron and manganese in the US each year. The military consumption of oil alone, Barnaby argued, was about two-thirds that of the whole of Africa at the time.

The defence industry had become the world’s second biggest business – after oil – and 40% of the world’s research scientists were funded out of military budgets; while military and defence establishments employed at least 27 million civilians. Soviet and US governments put a military satellite into orbit ever four days on average for two decades.

Born in Farnborough, Hampshire, Frank was the son of Hector Barnaby, a non-commissioned officer at RAF Farnborough, and his wife, Lilian (nee Sainsbury), who worked in a department store in Andover. Hector died in an accident and at an early age, Frank lived with his maternal grandparents. He attended Andover grammar school and then in 1946 was conscripted into the RAF, leaving after two years to begin a science degree and then a doctorate in nuclear physics through the University of London, before joining the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, Berkshire – the laboratory that was to become the focus of marches and demonstrations by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

As a radiation physicist, he twice monitored nuclear weapons tests at a site in Maralinga, South Australia, in 1956 and 1957. “The whole thing has a beauty about it, there’s no question about that,” he would later recall. “The energy involved clearly is enormous, the temperature is enormous, so it’s an exciting thing to see. It’s awesome, but it’s also extremely disturbing …”

Frank Barnaby held academic posts in Britain, the Netherlands and the US, and for a decade from 1971 was director of Sipri, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
Frank Barnaby held academic posts in Britain, the Netherlands and the US, and for a decade from 1971 was director of Sipri, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Photograph: none

He quit Aldermaston in 1957 to become a lecturer at University College London, and joined the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, a Nobel peace prizewinning group founded by the mathematician philosopher Bertrand Russell. This organisation of distinguished scientists from both sides of the iron curtain served, at the height of the cold war, as almost the only informal contact between two mutually hostile power blocs.

In 1967 he became its executive secretary. Then from 1971 to 1981 he was director of the influential Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, known as Sipri, and began writing books and articles on the accelerating advance of nuclear weaponry, its proliferation, and its possible uses.

And in those years, and from his later platform as a professor of peace studies at the Free University of Amsterdam (1981-85), he warned of the developments that made the world an increasingly dangerous place. Cruise missiles and other technologies effectively ended the deterrent strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction because they offered the possibility of a nuclear contest that could be “winnable”, but only with a pre-emptive all out first strike. He predicted the coming of the automated battlefield, and of the potential for plutonium as a terror weapon: with a planetary stockpile in 1989 of 2,000 metric tons, who would miss a few kilograms?

He became a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota (1985), he acted as a consultant to the Oxford Research Group on the civil and military uses of nuclear energy, and he became the editor in chief of the International Journal of Human Rights. And he continued to get involved in conflict research and nuclear issues.

In 1986 he authenticated a Sunday Times report based on revelations by an Israeli technician Mordechai Vanunu that Israel had a secret nuclear weapons programme, and testified a year later at Vanunu’s trial in Israel. Four years later he flew to Colombia to become – very briefly – the caretaker of an insurgent arsenal: the guerrilla group known as M19 sought to shift from violence to democratic politics, but would hand over their arms only to an independent group of witnesses.

Working with Greenpeace International in 2001, he gave evidence in Japan against the used of mixed uranium and plutonium oxide fuel, known as MOX, in a reactor at Fukushima. “Frank’s testimony was so impressive and read by the governor of the region that it stopped the loading of MOX fuel for more than 10 years,” said Shaun Burnie of Greenpeace International. In 2011, the reactor was overwhelmed by a devastating tsunami, but because of this intervention Japan was spared the release of many hundreds of tons of fission products – “in other words the evacuation of 50 million plus and the end of central Japan as a functioning society. That was Frank.”

While in Stockholm, he met Wendy Field, a young diplomat from Adelaide working in the Australian Embassy. They married in 1972. He is survived by Wendy, their two children, Sophie and Benjamin, and five grandchildren.

• Charles Frank Barnaby, physicist and nuclear disarmament expert, born 27 September 1927; died 1 August 2020


Tim Radford

The GuardianTramp

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