AWE will miss 2020 date to leave ‘special measures’

The two Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) sites at Aldermaston and Burghfield will both remain in enhanced regulatory attention until at least 2021, a year longer than previously expected, according to the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR). The sites have now been under enhanced attention for around six years, rather than the two years that was predicted in 2013 when they were first placed in that category. AWE Burghfield was briefly moved into routine regulatory attention during 2015, but was moved back into enhanced attention in 2016 due to failures to improve safety performance.

Enhanced is the second highest of three categories of regulatory attention. The highest category, ‘significantly enhanced regulatory attention’, is applied to the three most hazardous facilities at Sellafield and to site security at Sellafield. Besides AWE, the other five sites under enhanced regulatory attention are the remainder of the Sellafield site, Devonport Royal Dockyard, the former nuclear power station site at Dounreay and the Hunterston B and Dungeness B power stations. The AWE sites were originally put under enhanced attention because of compliance and safety issues, the reliance on ageing facilities and delays to replacement facilities.

The regulatory categories for the current year were announced in the ONR annual report in July, but further details have been revealed in a new ‘Chief Nuclear Inspector’s Annual Report’, released by ONR in October. AWE have a Structured Improvement Plan (SIP) in place, which is intended to help them return to routine regulatory attention. In the 2018 annual report ONR predicted that AWE would be able to leave enhanced attention in 2020. However, an inspection in March 2019 to pave the way for the change determined that insufficient progress had been made. ONR say there has been good progress in implementing the SIP, but short-term challenges still remain.

The Chief Nuclear Inspector’s report reveals that the Mensa building, which will replace the Assembly Technology Centre (ATC) where nuclear warheads are currently assembled and disassembled, is now expected to be completed in 2023. ONR say that safety improvements to the ATC, which it required to be made as a condition of work continuing at the facility, are being made at a satisfactory rate.

The report also says that AWE has begun to improve waste storage arrangements and reduce the total quantity of radioactive waste stored at Aldermaston. It is not clear whether this means that waste transports to Sellafield for processing have already begun.