David Fishlock: 9 August 1932-18 September 2009

24 November 2009

Terence Price, founder of the Uranium Institute, fondly remembers a reliable journalist.

When in December 2008 the Harwell Research Establishment celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the commissioning of the BEPO reactor, amidst a last-time-ever gathering of the engineers, physicists and chemists who had made it possible, David Fishlock was the only journalist to be invited. This was no accident: over the years the nuclear industry had come to trust his ability to report on its activities in measured and easily comprehensible terms, and to do so from the prestigious pages of the Financial Times. Even the politically contentious subject of nuclear waste storage seemed easier to deal with following an article suggesting that his home village in Buckinghamshire might well prove a suitable one.

David Fishlock in 2008
David Fishlock

I had particular reason to be grateful to him following the launch of the Uranium Institute in 1975. Our members from the uranium mining industry had been led into difficulties by the monopsonistic exploitation of the overwhelming purchasing power of the Westinghouse Corporation, then the world's leading reactor constructor. Before long the US Department of Justice became involved. Suddenly the uranium mining industry was in its sights. Luridly unsympathetic headlines appeared in the popular press. The UI was compared with OPEC. But Fishlock–himself a qualified chemist–could be relied upon to report only the truth. The Institute survived, and has since matured into the very successful World Nuclear Association.

An opportunity for the industry to repay David for his disciplined professionalism occurred at the end of April 1986. I had been due to visit the Swedish waste facility that served the nuclear reactor at Forsmark, north of Stockholm; but the visit was cancelled because of abnormally high radiation levels, which had led to a reactor shutdown. However, once the operators realised that the radiation levels in the reactor building were lower than those outside it became clear that the cause lay elsewhere. It did not take long before the Swedes pinpointed the site in the USSR of what must have been a major nuclear accident. As further news came in a steady stream to a nuclear industry supper party I made sure that it was telephoned to Fishlock without delay. He had a safe pair of hands, and could be relied upon to report in acceptably measured terms. The following morning the Financial Times had by far the most complete early report of what we now know as the Chernobyl disaster. By then Moscow had confessed that an explosion had occurred two days before my Swedish visit. Fishlock was awarded a British Press Award for his coverage of Chernobyl. Three years earlier he had been honoured with the OBE.

Fishlock's work was by no means confined to reporting on the nuclear industry. He published several books, on subjects as diverse as biotechnology and new materials. In his final years he began to take an interest in the technological history of warfare. Throughout his long career he was a model of what scientific reporting should be, and an exemplar of what it could achieve.

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