Minister confirms replacement plans for aging gravel gertie bunkers

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By Liam Sloan, Newbury Today, Online Reporter

AWE saferooms will be replaced

New nuclear missile assembly plants will be built at AWE Burghfield, if West Berkshire Council approves plans due to be submitted later this year.

They would replace the aging “gravel gerties” safe rooms, believed to be subject of a series of safety shortfalls which last year caused a shut down of live operations at the nuclear missile plant.

The concrete bunkers, named after a character in the Dick Tracy comics, are covered in a deep gravel bed designed to collapse inwards to smother any accidental explosion and prevent a plutonium cloud blasting into the air. Inside, Britain’s nuclear warheads are regularly taken apart, inspected and reassembled.

Last month newburytoday.co.uk exclusively revealed how all live nuclear work had halted for the first time in the organisation’s history. The shut down took place when floods hit Burghfield on July 20 last year, and after more than 1000 safety defects were discovered in inspections at the plant. Deadlines were missed for more than 300 of the improvements, including engineering failures in the assembly bunkers.

To date, AWE has refused to say when the existing gravel gerties were built, if they were flooded in July and whether new facilities are now needed. But a written parliamentary answer by Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth last Wednesday indicated that their replacement is imminent – seemingly confirming the longstanding safety worries. Mr Ainsworth said the planning application for a new assembly facility was now timetabled to be handed to West Berkshire Council in the last quarter of 2008.

AWE spokeswoman Rachel Whybrow said: “We recognise some of our facilities are up to 40 years old and we are seeking to replace them with a modern facility which will be built to modern standards incorporating current specifications for safety, security and environmental efficiency.”

She added: “This is part of our ongoing sites development plan to support the Trident warhead for the remainder of its operational life which is expected to last into the 2020s.”

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NIS Comment- Why do journalists or editors balk a the word 'warheads' and go for 'missiles'? Missiles are built in the USA and leased by the UK and do not go anywhere near AWE. They remain on the  UK Trident subs that collect them from the US directly.