NIS Update: April 2010


A report from the Environment Agency to the Atomic Weapons Establishment's Local Liaison Committee has highlighted concerns about pollution incidents caused by construction work at AWE sites.

The report reveals that AWE has been issued with a Warning Letter by the Environment Agency after work at the construction site for Project Mensa, the new nuclear warhead assembly facility at AWE Burghfield, resulted in pollution of the Burghfield Brook in December 2009.  

A water sample taken from the Brook showed that a limit on a discharge consent for pH (the measure of how acidic or alkaline a discharge is) was exceeded and that water in the brook was more alkaline that it should have been.

The report observes that a number of other pollution incidents have occurred at Aldermaston and Burghfield over recent months, including a diesel spill and suspended solids incidents, which have resulted in pollution entering watercourses off site.  The Environment Agency has judged that none of these incidents caused any significant environmental damage but is concerned that construction activities were involved in all of them.

The report states: “We are concerned that these minor incidents so early on in AWE’s programme of construction activities may warn of a more significant pollution incident to come as construction activities expand at both Burghfield and Aldermaston over the next few years.”

In December 2005 an article about AWE's construction programme in the staff newspaper 'AWE Today' quoted Aldermaston's Bob Irvin as saying: “At its peak the construction work will make AWE one of the largest construction sites in the UK – similar in scale to the Terminal 5 project at Heathrow.”

The Environment Agency has arranged to hold a joint Regulatory Workshop with AWE on construction issues to ensure that standards have improved, and will conduct a series of audits around the environmental performance of the construction sites to ensure that best practice is adopted to protect the environment.


Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has announced that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) intends to buy two more Astute class nuclear-powered submarines to replace ageing Trafalgar class hunter-killer submarines.

The announcement has caused eyebrows to be raised among defence analysts, coming close before the general election and also in advance of a Strategic Defence Review.  There has been speculation that it represents an attempt to pre-empt the review and commit the next government to maintaining construction of new submarines by BAE Systems at its Barrow-in-Furness shipyard.  

The first submarine in the class, HMS Astute, was handed over to the Royal Navy over four years late and costing over £1.4 billion above budget.  Three more boats are under currently construction but further planned vessels could be at risk following the Strategic Defence Review.

The decision represents a contractual commitment to proceed with the initial build of Astute Boat 5 (HMS Agamemnon) and long-lead procurement activities associated with Astute Boat 6 (HMS Anson), at a total cost of over £300 million.  Although it would be possible for a future government to cancel plans for main build contracts for the two submarines, it will be much harder to do so now that significant sums of money have been committed.

The contracts would allow work to start almost immediately on the steelwork for the fifth Astute class boat and allow the nuclear reactor and other items to be ordered for the sixth boat.

According to the North West Evening Mail, the local newspaper covering the Barrow-in-Furness area, defence minister Quentin Davies has pledged that a future Labour government will order a total of seven Astute class submarines and four successor submarines to the Vanguard class Trident nuclear weapons submarines.

The minister made the promise at a meeting with the trade union 'Keep Our Future Afloat Campaign' (KOFAC) from Barrow.

Although Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated recently that the government would consider operating the replacement for Trident with three submarines if it proved viable, Mr Davies told a KOFAC delegation that 'the three boat plan had been dumped', according to the newspaper.

Ministers are keen to ensure a smooth transition from the Astute programme to the successor for the Vanguard class vessels so as to avoid losing key skills if there is a gap between the two programmes.  Loss of expertise in the period before work began on HMS Astute was said by the MoD and BAE Systems to be a major cause of the cost and time overruns on the project.

4,700 staff work for BAE in Barrow – a town which is largely dependent on the shipyard for its livelihood.  BAE announced in February that it was cutting 230 jobs in its submarine business in order to reduce costs, although it said at the time it was still seeking to hire about 170 skilled engineers to work on the Astute programme.

The MoD has also awarded BAE a £127 million development contract for the new Type 26 Combat Ship, the Navy's next generation surface warship designed to replace Type 22 and Type 23 frigates.


AWE is aiming to diversify the nature of the work it undertakes beyond its traditional role of developing and maintaining nuclear weapons.

The company has established a new business development group to help in exploring possible new opportunities for work which fall outside its core operating contract with the Ministry of Defence.

The group has a brief to “optimise the potential of the skills and capabilities that enable AWE to undertake its primary purpose in support of the UK deterrent.”, and is led by Nick Cook who has been seconded from Serco, one of AWE's parent companies.  

AWE will work with the MoD to determine the scope for diverting spare capacity to  non-warhead related work and will then identify demand for the services that it is able to offer elsewhere within government or the private sector.

The company has recently advertised to recruit a Stakeholder Relationship and Marketing Manager, who will work with the business development group in developing a business development strategy for AWE and marketing the company's activities.

Work on manufacturing Trident nuclear warheads ended at the end of the 1990s and since then AWE's role has been confined to warhead maintenance and upgrade programmes and stockpile management.  The impact of the credit crunch and a renewed impetus towards nuclear arms control has forced the company to accept that the prospect of developing a new nuclear warhead, which seemed likely only a couple of years ago, may not now bear fruit.

As one of the nation's largest high technology research and development facilities,
AWE is keen make the most of commercial opportunities to use its scientific and engineering facilities and expertise.  A comprehensive range of state-of-the art equipment envied by even the most generously equipped university department will soon be complemented by the £183 million Orion nuclear test laser, which will be available for external academic research from 2012.

At the end of last year the company announced that it may have to make around 50 staff redundant, although it is now optimistic that there will be no need for compulsory redundancies.


The Prime Minister has announced that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) will visit the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing complex to check security arrangements at the site.

This will be the first time that Sellafield, which holds one of the world’s biggest stockpiles of plutonium, has opened its gates to international inspectors, although similar checks have been made at other reprocessing facilities around the world.

Gordon Brown has invited the inspectors as part of British backing for US President Barack Obama’s programme to improve global nuclear security.  The President will be holding an international nuclear security summit in Washington on 11-12 April.

The checks will ensure that stocks of nuclear material are properly secured and will allow inspectors to assess Sellafield’s security measures against international standards while also using the visit as an opportunity to learn from best practice.  It is not yet clear whether the inspectors will have free access to all parts of the site or whether the terms of the visit will allow them to discuss military stockpiles of fissile materials which are held by the UK.  Sellafield is now a civil nuclear facility, but has reprocessed nuclear material for military purposes in the past and may still hold a portion of the MoD's stockpile of fissile materials.

Sellafield Ltd, which operates the site, has said it is happy to support the inspections stating: “The mission will benchmark robust and comprehensive civil nuclear security measures currently in place on site against international best practice and offers the opportunity for two-way learning.”

The company has said that the IAEA is able to access Sellafield whenever it wishes, but has not previously exercised the right to do so.

The government has slowly been taking a more open approach to international inspections of nuclear facilities since the then Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, spoke of establishing the UK as a 'disarmament laboratory' in a speech at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington in 2007.  Last year the Ministry of Defence and staff from AWE co-operated with the Norwegian government in organising a mock inspection of a military facility in Norway.


Member's of AWE's Local Liaison Committee have been told that the planning application for the next major construction project at the Aldermaston site – Project Hydrus – will not now be submitted until the end of May.

The application was scheduled to be submitted to West Berkshire Council in April, but is believed to have been delayed as a result of the forthcoming general election.  AWE and its Ministry of Defence customer are keen not to embark on any controversial or politically sensitive initiatives during the election campaign period.

Project Hydrus will be a new hydrodynamics research facility which will use pulsed power techniques to test the flow characteristics of materials at very high pressures.


A recent Parliamentary Written Answer has revealed that around 4,000 abnormal safety events are recorded at the Atomic Weapons Establishment each year.

In response to a question asked by Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, defence minister Quentin Davies stated that 4,020 abnormal events were recorded in 2008 and 3,911 in 2009. Of these, three events in each year were assessed as having the potential to challenge a nuclear safety system. The minister stressed that none of the six events actually did threaten nuclear safety, and none resulted in any harm.

All six events “were subject to detailed investigations, and all necessary remedial action has been completed to the satisfaction of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate”.

AWE defines an abnormal event as any action or series of actions that causes a deviation from the planned course of events. An abnormal event need not cause physical harm to persons, property or the environment, and abnormal events may cover quality and security issues as well as safety.  AWE asks staff to report all abnormal events, however minor, and considers the high number of abnormal events reported to be a reflection of the robustness of its reporting system.


The Government has published  draft legislation to create a new regulatory body for the nuclear industry, which will be called the Office for Nuclear Regulation.  The body will be created by combining the Health and Safety Executive's Nuclear Directorate with the teams responsible for nuclear transport from the Department of Transport and the nuclear security and safeguards teams from Department of Energy and Climate Change.

The government has declined to take the opportunity to include the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR), the MoD's internal regulator responsible for nuclear issues in the new Office of Nuclear Regulation, and has also decided not to place military nuclear sites under the same statutory regulatory regime as civil nuclear sites.  The Ministry of Defence will therefore continue to regulate its own nuclear activities and will remain exempt from Health and Safety law relating to nuclear activities.


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