AWE Burghfield Warhead Plant Stops Operations

Jamie Doward, Home Affairs Editor, The Observer, 25th May 2008

Trident plant shut down in safety alert- Work at missile factory was suspended in secret after watchdog threatened to withhold licence.

Work on Britain's Trident nuclear warhead programme was suspended for much of the last year due to wide-ranging safety fears, it has been disclosed. Following suspension of work at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Burghfield in Berkshire last July, when flooding increased the risk of fire at the plant, concerns about on-site safety became so acute that a decision was taken in the autumn to stop all live nuclear work on missile warheads.

The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) insisted last year that AWE had to improve safety otherwise it would not issue a new licence for live work on nuclear warheads. In an official report the watchdog said it was concerned the risk of an accident at Burghfield was not 'as low as reasonably practicable' in a quarter of its inspection targets. The plant's operator then took the unprecedented decision to halt work until last month.

'This is concerning,' said John Large, nuclear consultant with Large & Associates. 'If the [refurbishment] process stops it must be because the regulator is uncomfortable with the risks.'

In a statement to parliament last week, the defence minister, Bob Ainsworth, confirmed work at Burghfield – which maintains all of the UK's 140 Trident missiles – initially stopped in July. 'As a result of temporary disruption due to flooding at AWE Burghfield, the nuclear site licensee … took a decision not to undertake live nuclear working while remedial work was undertaken,' Ainsworth told MPs.

Ainsworth confirmed the decision to stop work at Burghfield was reached in conjunction with the Ministry of Defence and the nuclear safety watchdog and that 'live' working had now been resumed. A spokesman for the plant's operator declined to say when the live work was resumed on the grounds of national security but it is understood to have been some time last month.

'I'm very concerned about this situation,' said the Liberal Democrat MP, Mike Hancock, whose parliamentary questions forced the government to admit work had been stopped at the top secret plant. 'I will continue to pursue the matter in parliament and seek further assurances.'

The decision to halt work on refurbishing the warheads is a serious dent to Burghfield's reputation. The AWE, which is owned by three companies – British Nuclear Group, Serco and Lockheed Martin – claims to be a 'centre of technological excellence, with some of the most advanced research, design and production facilities in the world'.

In 2006, 1,000 safety shortfalls were identified at Burghfield. The plant's operator was given a deadline of 27 September 2007 to improve conditions. But serious faults with the structure of Burghfield's ageing buildings, where fissile material and high explosive components are combined in Trident warheads, were not addressed. Neither were the condition of its warhead lifting cranes

Letters marked 'restricted', but released under the Freedom of Information Act, highlight the nuclear safety watchdog's concerns that deadlines for improving safety at the plant were not being met. 'NII is uncomfortable that some of the Burghfield shortfalls … will not have been addressed by this time (September 2007),' one letter from the watchdog states.

It continues: 'In the event that NII feels there has not been adequate remediation in the case of a significant shortfall by the decision date, it may consider requiring the imposition of some form of operational restriction to compensate, until an adequate solution is in place.'

'The Burghfield flood is a timely warning,' said Di McDonald of the Nuclear Information Service which keeps a watching brief on Burghfield. 'Climate change requires a new risk assessment of whether these weapons pose more of a risk than they are supposed to deter.'

David Lowry, an environmental policy consultant who specialises in the nuclear sector, attacked the secretive nature in which the plant's operator had decided to halt work on the warheads. 'The most important thing is to protect the environment and local population,' Lowry said. 'It is a concern if the plant operators are keeping secret information that people should know about.'

The site's susceptibility to flooding highlights concerns about safety at Britain's nuclear weapons plants.

'This is one of the most high-grade top secret military establishments in the country,' said the Conservatives shadow defence spokesman Julian Lewis. 'One would expect the highest standards of safety considerations to apply.'

A spokesman for the watchdog said it could order work to stop at Burghfield if it had further concerns about safety. A spokesman for AWE said: 'The disruption did not have an adverse effect on the UK deterrent programme, and AWE Burghfield maintains its capability to support the deterrent safely.

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