AWE Aldermaston must remain under ‘special measures’ for second year running, says government safety watchdog

The factory which designs and manufactures the UK's nuclear weapons must stay on a list of  nuclear sites which require an enhanced level of regulatory attention because of the risks it poses, according to the government's nuclear safety watchdog.

The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston is listed as a safety priority for the second year running in an assessment published by the Office for Nuclear Regulator (ONR) as part of its Annual Report for 2013/14. The assessment identifies a number of sites where ONR considers that additional 'special measures' are needed because of their radiological hazards and below par safety performance.

AWE Aldermaston is listed as one of just seven out of 36 nuclear sites in the UK which will require an “enhanced level of regulatory attention” over the year ahead.  

The nuclear safety regulator's annual report states that AWE Aldermaston is currently under investigation for two apparent breaches of the law: a failure to comply with instructions for radioactive waste management and for allowing “shortfalls” to arise in the operability and availability of fire detection systems at the site.

The ONR report says that AWE Aldermaston requires additional attention because it houses a range of ageing facilities and because of concerns about “the timeliness and quality of periodic reviews”.  The report states that a number of safety cases for the site “do not meet expectations”, and highlights the additional regulatory effort needed to manage the major building programme currently underway at Aldermaston to enable the factory to manufacture new nuclear weapons.

The report further indicates that AWE's safety performance has remained level, rather than improved, over the last year.  However, ONR states that it is satisfied that there are “no immediate safety concerns” at the Aldermaston site, and that as the AWE Burghfield site is less complex than the Aldermaston site, it can receive a “routine” level of regulatory attention.

AWE Aldermaston was first listed as an enforcement priority by the nuclear safety watchdog last year, following the discovery of corrosion in structural steelwork which resulted in the closure of the top secret A45 building which manufactures enriched uranium components for nuclear warheads and fuel for nuclear submarines.  The incident was rated at the time as the most serious safety problem at any nuclear site in the last three years, and the repair programme for the building has yet to be completed by AWE.

Devonport naval dockyard, civil nuclear power plants at Dungeness B and Heysham 1, the Dounreay nuclear site, and legacy and operational areas of the Sellafield reprocessing plant have also been identified by ONR as requiring enhanced regulatory attention over the year ahead.

Like AWE Aldermaston, the Devonport dockyard, where the Royal Navy's nuclear powered submarines are maintained, also requires enhanced attention for the second year running.  Although safety performance at the dockyard is acknowledged by ONR as improving, the regulator highlighted concerns over “ageing facilities”, “a very busy submarine maintenance programme”, and enforcement action taken on “occasions where written instructions required for safe operation were breached”.

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