Atomic Weapons Establishment off the hook over failure to treat radioactive waste

The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) will not be prosecuted for failing to treat intermediate level radioactive waste stocks which have accumulated at its Aldermaston site – even though the company defied a legally binding instruction by missing a deadline to deal with the waste.

The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), the government regulator responsible for safety in the nuclear industry, has concluded that “the current conditions under which waste is stored are acceptable and do not give rise to significant risk to the public or the workforce”, and so a prosecution is not necessary.  

In 2007 ONR issued a formal Licence Instrument instructing AWE to reduce reduce in volume and encapsulate 1,000 drums of radioactive waste which have accumulated at Aldermaston.  ONR wrote to AWE in June 2010 expressing concern about slow progress in dealing with the waste but in August 2011 the company told ONR that it would not be able to comply with the requirement by the deadline of February 2014 which had been set for completing the task.

Documents obtained by Nuclear Information Service under the Freedom of Information Act show that initial proposals to compact the waste drums were rejected by AWE as being too expensive.  Searches for an alternative solution based around collaboration with other nuclear site operators floundered and the Licence Instrument expired on 20 February 2014 with AWE in breach of its requirements.

ONR investigated the breach but concluded that instead of prosecuting the company for failing to meet its legal obligations, “a more proportionate and effective response” would be to “ensure the robustness of AWE’s long term strategy and enforcing its implementation”.  ONR has requested AWE to develop “an appropriate solution demonstrating adequate progress” in placing the hazardous material into a passively safe form. In response, AWE has “improved its arrangements for storing untreated intermediate level waste, and continues to make progress in developing its long term waste treatment and storage strategy”.

ONR has not ruled out further enforcement action against AWE and “will now consider what action is needed to achieve the hazard reduction specified by the Licence Instrument in reasonably practicable timescales”.

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