Information about the safety and environmental risks posed by a new nuclear weapons research facility which is to be built at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston should be released to the public, according to the Nuclear Information Service (NIS).
NIS is concerned that excessive secrecy surrounds proposals to build 'Project Hydrus', a new hydrodynamics research facility at AWE Aldermaston, where warheads for the UK's Trident nuclear weapons system are manufactured. A planning application for the new facility was submitted to West Berkshire Council last month.
Key information about Project Hydrus, its impacts, and the risks it poses has been withheld from the public by the Ministry of Defence, which claims that releasing such information into the public domain would be “contrary to the interests of national defence”.
NIS has published a detailed briefing about the planned new facility and the MoD's justification for withholding the information, released under the Freedom of Information Act (you can download both documents at the bottom of this page).
Lack of information about the impacts means that the planning committee and the public must rely entirely on the judgement of AWE and government regulatory agencies to decide whether risks posed by the new facility are acceptable and safeguards for protecting the public are adequate. The new facility will pose a number of environmental and safety risks which are not addressed in the Defence Exempt Environmental Assessment:
Radioactive plutonium will be used in some of the tests conducted in the facility, and so radioactively contaminated wastes will be generated, which will be stored on site pending development of a National Repository for the UK's radioactive waste.
Explosives will also be handled and detonated as an integral part of the experimental programme.
X-ray radiation from the high powered x-ray machines used to record images during experiments poses a potential hazard to human health.
Hydrodynamic experiments generate noise and vibration. AWE is concerned that disclosure of specific information on noise and vibration signatures could be used to help enemies gain an understanding about warhead configurations.
Construction traffic will have an impact in the local area, particularly upon Aldermaston village.
Although the costs of Project Hydrus have not been disclosed by the Ministry of Defence, they are certain to amount to hundreds of millions of pounds. A new high-powered hydrodynamics facility at the USA's Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory in New Mexico eventually cost more than 1 billion to construct and commission.
NIS considers that the multi-million pound costs of building a new hydrodynamics research facility at Aldermaston cannot be justified at the current time, when deep cuts in public spending planned over the next few years will correspond with the construction period for Project Hydrus.
Peter Burt, Director of the Nuclear Information Service, said: “The Ministry of Defence's view that people have no right to know about the hazards which they face from a major nuclear establishment is what we would expect to hear from a creaky old Soviet dictatorship, and not a modern democratic government."
It is entirely reasonable for the public to ask what steps are being taken to guarantee their safety, and information about the risks posed by Project Hydrus should be published before the development is given the go-ahead.
“West Berkshire Council does not have to grant planning permission in the absence of adequate information about the impacts of the facility, and the planning committee should insist that AWE and the Ministry of Defence operate to the same standards of disclosure as any other developer.
“Clearly Project Hydrus is far more than a replacement for AWE's current hydrodynamics facilities. Alongside the Orion high powered laser and new supercomputing facilities, Project Hydrus will play a core role in AWE's warhead research programme and would be vital in the design of any new nuclear warhead.”
West Berkshire Council intends to make a decision on the Project Hydrus planning application within three months of its submission date, meaning that the application is likely to be determined at a meeting of the Council's Eastern Area Planning Committee on 29th September 2010. A copy of the application and supporting documents can be found on the West Berkshire Council website.
Click on the links below to download copies of the NIS briefing about Project Hydrus and the Ministry of Defence's justification for withholding information about the safety and environmental impacts of the facility.