Environment Agency raps Atomic Weapons Establishment over radioactive waste management staff shortages

The factory that manufactures the UK's nuclear weapons has been rapped by a government regulatory agency for the second time this year for failings in radioactive waste management arrangements.

The Environment Agency has raised a 'non-compliance intervention' against the Atomic Weapons Establishment after a site inspection in July revealed that insufficient numbers of competent personnel were in place to allow the Establishment to comply with environmental permits.  Earlier this year an investigation into arrangements for processing radioactive waste held at AWE was launched by the Office for Nuclear Regulation, another regulatory agency.

The inspection, which was undertaken jointly by the Environment Agency, the Office for Nuclear Regulation, and the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator, found that AWE has been without a number of key waste management personnel for several months, including some Facility Waste Officers, Radioactive Waste Specialists and the Head of Environment.

AWE claimed that a number of “unforeseen circumstances at very short notice” led to the posts becoming vacant and that “security requirements” had led to recruitment delays in filling them. In the interim, existing staff were covering the roles.

In 2012 the Agency placed an Improvement Condition on AWE requiring the company to develop and use a baseline personnel structure identifying posts needed to ensure compliance with its environmental permits. Following the inspection visit a non-compliance intervention was raised warning AWE that it does not have adequate numbers of personnel in post to comply with its own baseline levels and guarantee compliance with  permits.

The inspection also identified “opportunities for improvement” in strategic planning for waste management, including making use of information already available, taking account of risks to waste management activities, and engaging stakeholders in waste management planning.

In most other respects, the regulators found AWE's radioactive waste management arrangements to be “robust”, and a number of areas of good practice were identified.

However, an inspection of the Hydrodynamics area facilities concluded that housekeeping in the area was “generally below the standard expected on a nuclear site”, with bags of waste found left in corners, an oil bund being used as a storage area, and the discovery of drums of “unknown provenance”.

The Environment Agency has formally notified AWE that it has breached a condition of its environmental permit, and that this is an offence under environmental law.  The Agency has provided the company with advice on action required to meet the requirements of the environmental baseline and bring them back into compliance with legal requirements.

Earlier this year the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) announced that it is considering enforcement action against AWE for failing to comply with instructions for managing a growing backlog of radioactive waste.

AWE was issued with a  a legally binding Licence Instrument to AWE in March 2007 ordering the company to reduce the volume and encapsulate 1000 drums of intermediate level radioactive waste so that they could be stored safely in a passive form over the long term.  The Licence Instrument expired at the end of February 2014 without its requirements being met.

ONR is currently investigating AWE’s failure to comply with the Licence Instrument and  has said it will consider enforcement action in accordance with its enforcement policy when investigations are complete.

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