The site is located on the north Cornish Coast, and is on the headland between the coastal villages of Portreath and Porthtowan. Pre-war parts of the site were used as a Victorian rifle range, elements of which can still be viewed from the North Cornish Coastal Path (in the area of Sally's Bottom), and it was extensively farmed as part of Nancekuke Common. The north eastern quadrant of the site still bears the hallmarks of the extensive mining activity that took place in this part of the County. The site currently occupies approximately 380 hectares and has a perimeter of 10.2km, 2.4 km of which runs adjacent to the Cornish Coastal Path. Parts of the site are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The War Years
The land was requisitioned in 1940 and opened in 1941 as an RAF Fighter Sector Station and Overseas Air Dispatch Unit (OADU) under Number 10 Group. At one time as many as 107 aircraft were recorded as being present. They included Halifaxes, Horsa gliders, Spitfires, Blenheims, and Mosquitoes.
The airfield originally had 4 runways, however, today, only one runway remains active and this is used by Royal Air Force and Royal Navy helicopters.
The Post War Years & CDE Nancekuke
In the years between 1945 and 1950, Portreath housed a Transport Command Briefing School, utilising the outbuildings as a haven for the Polish Resettlement Air Corps (1946-1948) and for two years was under care and maintenance (1948-1950), listed as a surplus inactive station.
In May 1950 RAF Portreath was acquired by the Ministry of Supply to be developed as the Chemical Defence Establishment (CDE), Nancekuke. The Ministry of Supply had decided that a new plant in a remote area was required, and hence ex RAF Portreath was chosen. Its rural location was deemed to be more suitable for work on chemical production processes. CDE Nancekuke began operating as a small-scale chemical agent production and research facility in 1951. CDE Nancekuke operated 3 sites, North Site, Central Site and South Site. A pilot production facility was built on North Site to support the research, development and production of a nerve agent known as sarin (GB). Production at this plant commenced in 1954 and continued until 1956. Over this period approximately 20 tons of nerve agent were manufactured. The Central Site Labs were used for research until 1962.
The cessation of the UK's offensive weapons programme in 1956 meant that the planned expansion of the pilot plant, to a full-scale production plant, never went ahead. From then on, work at Nancekuke concentrated on the small-scale production of chemicals and agents to support the UK’s defensive research programme which was being directed from Porton Down in Wiltshire. Between 1956 and the late 1970's, CDE Nancekuke was used for the production of riot control agents (such as CS gas) and it was increasingly involved with the development of medical countermeasures, training simulants, and the development of charcoal cloth for use in protective Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) suits used by the British Forces.
The End of an Era
In 1976, a defence review recommended the transfer of remaining work to CDE Porton Down, and the decision to begin decommissioning CDE Nancekuke was taken. A team of international inspectors (from the Committee of Disarmament) oversaw the decommissioning process and visited the site in March 1979. Verification is an important part of disarmament, and the site is still open to inspection by members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
All remaining stocks of chemical agents were destroyed or transferred to Porton Down between 1976 and 1980. Decontaminated equipment and some non-hazardous chemical substances were disposed of on site, in 5 marked dumpsites designated A to E. The Project Team responsible for assessing and remediating the site have found no evidence to support the dumping of toxic chemical warfare agents at Portreath. However, some of the closure records are incomplete and this has led the Project Team to apply the highest standards of safety to all remediation work. CDE Nancekuke closed in 1980 and the site was formally handed back to the RAF on the 30 September 1980.
Nancekuke and the Chemical Weapons Convention
The former activities of the site were declared under the terms of the Chemical Weapons Convention in May 1997 and the site has subsequently been visited by international inspectors who confirmed that the production facilities had been destroyed and the few buildings remaining were not being used for chemical weapons production. The site will remain open to inspection for another ten years. A team of inspectors will be invited by the UK Government to view the remediation work once it commences in earnest.
The Cold War Years - The Need for Secrecy
It is worth remembering that the work that went on at CDE Nancekuke contributed in a significant way to Britain's capability to defend against a possible chemical weapons attack by the forces of the Warsaw Pact. These were the days of the Cold War and the work at CDE Nancekuke was governed by the highest standards of secrecy to prevent details of our defensive capability falling into the wrong hands. However, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Warsaw Pact, it has been possible, to adopt a far more open approach to the work that was undertaken at CDE Nancekuke.