Aldermaston in ‘special measures’ until at least 2022

The Chief Nuclear Inspector (CNI) has dealt a blow to AWE Aldermaston by predicting that the site will remain under enhanced regulatory attention until at least 2022. Both Aldermaston and AWE Burghfield are regulated by the Office for Nuclear Regulation and have been under enhanced regulatory attention for about seven years. The prediction was made in the CNI’s annual report, which gives an overview of the safety record of all nuclear licensed sites in the UK for the financial year 2019/20.

When the two AWE sites were initially placed under enhanced attention in 2013 it was expected that the necessary improvements could be completed within two years. Aldermaston has permanently been in enhanced attention since that time. Burghfield briefly moved into routine attention in 2015, before returning to the enhanced category the following year.

In 2017 and 2018 it was hoped that the two sites would be able to return to routine attention in 2020, but following a review in early 2019, ONR determined that progress on safety issues at the sites was not sufficient to allow this.

The CNI’s annual report was first published in 2019, and contains a much greater level of detail about the safety performance of nuclear licensed sites. Prior to 2019 the regulatory categories for all the nuclear licensed sites and some information about performance were published in the ONR’s annual corporate report. The 2020 report contains more detail than its predecessor about the reasoning for the different regulatory categories that sites have been placed into.

For both AWE sites the most significant failing is a lack of adequate and up-to-date nuclear safety cases, and performance in this area has deteriorated since the previous year. Performance on industrial and fire safety has also deteriorated at both sites, and there have been failings at Burghfield that relate to maintaining and/or modifying existing plant.

As part of their license conditions, nuclear sites are required to carry out regular reviews of the safety at their facilities. Following these reviews, sites must submit a safety justification document to ONR for approval to allow them to continue using the facility. The process is known as a Periodic Safety Review (PSR).

In January 2020 ONR sent an enforcement letter to AWE over an 18 month delay in delivering the PSR for Aldermaston. This followed failings during an earlier PSR over which ONR also sent enforcement letters. In March 2018 ONR witheld 10-year approval of operations at the warhead assembly facility in Burghfield unless changes were made to the facility. The PSR which AWE had submitted on that occasion was also submitted late. As a consequence of the 2020 enforcement letter AWE Chief Operating Officer was required to attend a ‘Holding to Account’ meeting with ONR.

The March 2019 decision not to begin the process of returning the AWE sites to routine regulatory attention was based on the failure to provide adequate safety cases on time and a lack of capacity to oversee safety and regulatory compliance. NIS understands that prior to the current AWE CEO taking over in May 2020, senior management at AWE did not act to increase the organisation’s capacity to work on safety cases and other regulatory issues.

The CNI report suggests that the safety record at Burghfield is improving faster than Aldermaston, and the site might be able to move into routine regulatory attention in late 2021. Although the site did perform worse in some areas, there were improvements across a number of other areas compared to the previous year.

The CNI report is also more positive about safety performance at Devonport Royal Dockyard Ltd, with improvements across multiple areas and the report describing “substantial, tangible and sustained improvements in…organisational culture” and other areas. The report anticipates the site moving to routine regulatory attention sooner than the AWE sites.

The report also lists the number of workplace incidents that need to be reported under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR). During 2019/20 there were seven injuries and one dangerous occurrence at Aldermaston, no injuries and one dangerous occurrence at Burghfield. This compares to nine injuries and one dangerous occurrence at Devonport, ten injuries and one dangerous occurrence at Barrow, and one injury and one dangerous occurrence at Rolls-Royce. There were five injuries and one dangerous occurrence at Faslane.

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