Project Aurora, a new plutonium manufacturing facility at AWE Aldermaston was added to the government’s 2023 list of major projects, and is currently estimated to cost between £2bn and £2.5bn. The facility, which was originally planned as part of the Nuclear Warhead Capability Sustainment Programme (NWCSP) at AWE, will likely replace the current A90 facility at Aldermaston, which was built in the 1990s.
The facility will be used to manufacture the plutonium ‘pits’ for the UK’s planned new warhead. These are designed to be compressed by explosives in the primary stage of the warhead, starting a fission reaction, which would then trigger a fusion reaction in the warhead’s secondary stage.
The official start date for the project was January 2019, but no information was released by the MOD at the time, and very little has been said prior to its inclusion in the Major Projects Portfolio. It was excluded from the response to a June 2021 parliamentary question about planned infrastructure projects at AWE, and in September 2022 the MOD refused to give details about the anticipated cost of the project, saying that it was “beginning its Initial Assessment phase”.
The NWCSP was a £20bn project to extend the life of the UK’s Trident warheads, build and renovate infrastructure at the two main AWE sites and lay the groundwork for an expected announcement of the UK’s plans to produce a new nuclear warhead design. Several of the infrastructure projects were dogged by delays and cost overruns, including the Mensa warhead assembly facility, the Pegasus enriched uranium facility and the joint Anglo-French hydrodynamics facility Teutates in Valduc, France. As part of the NWCSP, a number of other facilities were refurbished, including a £272m refurbishment of A90.
Due to the cost-overruns, particularly with Mensa which is now expected to cost £2.2bn, several of the NWCSP projects were cancelled or postponed, including Pegasus which was put on-hold in 2015 and restarted in March 2021. The same year, at the request of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority the NWCSP was separated into its remaining projects: Mensa, Pegasus, Tuetates and Aurora. During Aurora’s early concept phase the case for a new facility was considered alongside the option of another refurbishment of A90, but the decision to go ahead with a new building was taken in late 2022.
In a December 2022 letter to the Public Accounts Committee the accounting officer for the Aurora project said that a budget of £108m had been approved for the remainder of the initial assessment phase. The approved budget for the financial year 2022/23 was £79m. In the major projects data Aurora is described as being in “early design”, and the predicted in-service date for the facility is redacted, citing national security. To date, no planning application for the facility appears to have been lodged with West Berkshire council.
(The image used to illustrate this article shows the A90 facility at Aldermaston. A90 can be seen near the centre of the frame, behind the neighbouring A91 building)