Nuclear weapons factories placed under ‘special measures’ by government nuclear safety watchdog

The factories which build and maintain the UK's nuclear weapons are among five nuclear sites which require an “enhanced  level of regulatory attention” because of the risks they pose, according to the government's nuclear safety regulator.

The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) sites at Aldermaston and Burghfield are listed as safety priorities in an assessment published by the Office for Nuclear Regulator (ONR) as part of its annual report for 2013.  The assessment identifies a number of sites where ONR considers that additional 'special measures' are needed because of their radiological hazards and safety performance.

ONR has identified the AWE sites as 'priority 2' sites which are expected to require enhanced regulatory attention for the next two years.  The regulator has placed AWE on its priority list because of its “high hazard operations and ageing facilities” and because there have been “issues on timeliness / quality” during recent safety reviews involving the company.  

ONR's agreement will be required before key steps in AWE's ongoing construction programme can go ahead, and the regulator has warned that the company faces challenges posed by a “busy programme and stretched resources within a context of wider strategic organisational change” within the Ministry of Defence.

The ONR annual report indicates that AWE's safety performance has remained level, rather than improved, over the last year.

The report reveals that the most serious safety problem at any nuclear site in the last three years occurred at AWE Aldermaston in 2012. The discovery of corrosion in structural steelwork resulted in the closure of the secret A45 building which makes enriched uranium components for nuclear warheads and fuel for nuclear submarines.

The report groups the UK's nuclear sites into three priority groups with the vast majority (29 sites) listed as 'priority 3', requiring a “routine business” approach.  Four nuclear operators – AWE, Devonport Naval Dockyard, the Dounreay research site in Scotland, and parts of the Sellafield reprocessing plant in Cumbria – are given a 'priority 2' rating, with an expectation that issues which require enhanced regulatory attention will be resolved within two years.

One location – decommissioning facilities at Sellafield – has been rated as a 'priority 1' site where enhanced regulatory attention will be needed for at least five years.

ONR says that the priorities have been assigned on the basis of “inspection data, regulatory intelligence, and expert judgement over many years of accumulated regulatory experience”.

Enforcement action has been taken against AWE three times over the past fifteen months by government agencies: once by ONR following the discovery of corrosion problems at Aldermaston, and twice by the Environment Agency following a discharge of radioactive tritium into the Aldermaston stream and for failing to keep adequate records on carbon emissions.

In May AWE plc was fined £200,000 in Reading Crown Court after pleading guilty to breaching health and safety law following a fire at Aldermaston in 2010 when an employee was injured.

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