The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) – the factory where the UK's nuclear weapons are designed and made – is under investigation by the government's nuclear safety watchdog for failing to comply with instructions for managing a growing backlog of radioactive waste.
The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has announced that it is considering enforcement action against AWE for failing to treat radioactive waste which is accumulating at the AWE Aldermaston site, despite first being ordered to take action in 2007.
The Nuclear Installation Inspectorate, which has since become ONR, issued a legally binding Licence Instrument to AWE in March 2007 requiring reduction in volume and encapsulation of 1000 drums of intermediate level radioactive waste by February 2014. The Licence Instrument aimed to ensure that hazardous untreated waste – known as 'higher activity waste' – which is too highly contaminated with radioactive material for disposal in existing facilities could be stored safely in a passive form over the long term.
After a period of seven years the Licence Instrument has now expired without its requirements being met. ONR is therefore investigating AWE's failure to comply with the Instrument before making a decision on taking enforcement action against the company.
The wastes held at Aldermaston include plutonium contaminated waste from nuclear warhead manufacturing and research processes, and have been gradually accumulating since the early 1980s, when the dumping of radioactive wastes at sea was banned.
Intermediate level radioactive waste is currently held in purpose built stores at AWE Aldermaston and will remain there indefinitely until a national radioactive waste repository is opened. As yet no suitable location for such a repository has been identified, and the Ministry of Defence has stated that radioactive waste will be have to be stored at Aldermaston until at least 2070, which is the earliest date that the planned national repository for such wastes will be able to accept waste from AWE.
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 instruction by the February 2014 deadline. AWE has since been investigating alternative options for converting the waste into a passive form and storing it safely and, according to ONR, has improved its arrangements for storing untreated intermediate level waste and has made progress in developing its long term radioactive waste treatment and storage strategy.
As a result of AWE's failure to comply with the regulator's instructions, 'raw' radioactive waste which meets a lower safety standard than encapsulated waste may have to be stored indefinitely at Aldermaston, or transported off site for treatment and possibly storage.
Earlier this month the Ministry of Defence announced that AWE Aldermaston and AWE Burghfield have been shortlisted as candidate sites for the storage of radioactive waste from the decommissioning of nuclear powered submarines. Consultation on the proposals will begin later this year.
Declaration of interest: Pete Wilkinson, Director of Nuclear Information Service, is chair of the Office for Nuclear Regulation NGO Forum.