NIS Update: August 2012


The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has agreed to hand over operation of the Trident nuclear warhead store at the Royal Naval Armament Depot (RNAD) Coulport to a private sector consortium led by AWE plc, operators of the Atomic Weapons Establishment sites in Berkshire.

MoD signed a 15 year contract to outsource day-to-day warhead support activities at Coulport and the associated Strategic Weapons Support Building at Faslane at the end of July 2012. The contract is valued at £150 million over its duration, and is scheduled to commence in January 2013.

Coulport is part of HM Naval Base Clyde, where the UK's Trident submarines are based, and is responsible for storing and maintaining the UK's stockpile of warheads and arming the four submarines that carry them.

The Coulport contract was awarded to the ABL alliance: a consortium composed of AWE plc, Babcock International Group and Lockheed Martin UK Strategic Systems. All three contractors are heavily involved in the UK's nuclear weapons programme. Lockheed Martin already plays a role in providing support to operations at Coulport and is one of the three partner companies behind AWE plc, which is responsible for designing, building, and maintaining UK nuclear weapons at the Atomic Weapons Establishment. Babcock International carries out all major submarine maintenance work at the Devonport Naval Dockyard, and currently plays a major role in submarine support at HM Naval Base Clyde.

The contract will enable AWE plc to consolidate its control over the UK's Trident nuclear warhead programme throughout its entire life cycle, from weapon design to disposal. The Ministry of Defence described the agreement as "a natural extension of their current role in supporting the nuclear warhead carried by our Trident missiles". AWE plc will play the role of 'prime contractor' within the alliance, sub-contracting work to Lockheed Martin and Babcock.

Management options at Coulport have been under consideration since 2008, with AWE undertaking a review of operations at the site in mid 2009. Following the review an unsolicited bid to take over operation of the site was submitted by AWE and its partners. In May 2011 defence ministers rejected an alternative option of keeping work at Coulport in-house, claiming that outsourcing to ABL offered the best value for money despite issues of monopoly control by AWE and the two subcontractors.

Under the new arrangements 149 MoD civilian personnel will transfer to ABL Alliance. The staff who will transfer are specialist strategic weapons system industrial and technical grades, warehousing operatives, logistic support services staff, and supervisors and managers. 39 Royal Navy posts will also be seconded to the alliance. MOD will continue to own the Coulport and Faslane sites and the Naval Base Commander Clyde will retain overall responsibility for security and for site operations.



A court hearing at which the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) was due to answer charges relating to breaches of health and safety law following a fire at AWE Aldermaston in August 2010 has been postponed.

The hearing, originally scheduled to take place on 6 August, will now go ahead on 29 November 2012. The hearing was delayed to give AWE's representatives the opportunity to study documents relating to the case.

Following an investigation into the fire the Health and Safety Executive's Hazardous Installations Directorate is prosecuting AWE plc for alleged offences under Health and Safety at work Act 1974, the Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 2002, and the Manufacture and Storage of Explosives Regulations 2005.



Nuclear safety regulators have given permission for a series of nuclear reactor tests to go ahead as part of the final commissioning of HMS Ambush, the second 'Astute' class submarine which is currently being built by BAE Systems at Barrow-in-Furness.

Power range testing for the new submarine, when the reactor core achieves criticality for the first time, allowing the core and propulsion plant performance to be tested, commenced on 5 July and was expected to last for several weeks.

Before allowing the power range tests to go ahead, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) had insisted that BAE Systems provided a satisfactory demonstration of their ability to evacuate and account for their staff during an exercise simulating an accident during a testing event.

A previous emergency exercise at Barrow – Exercise Indigo, which took place in July 2010 – resulted in “confusion” and demonstrated “extremely poor” procedures according to ONR inspectors.

ONR concluded that the company was unable to adequately account for personnel evacuated from the danger zone during the exercise, the handling of casualties during the exercise was "poor", and rescue workers would have been exposed to large doses of radioactivity.

BAE Systems was forced to repeat the exercise, but further exercises also failed to track staff adequately as a result of “anomalies” in the electronic system used by the company to account for personnel. The system was finally demonstrated successfully in March 2012 and, following further checks to ensure that staff involved in testing activities were suitably qualified and experienced, permission was given for the power range tests to go ahead.

During active commissioning a submarine's reactor is brought to criticality for the first time, starting off the chain reaction which generates power. 'Physics testing' then takes place to check whether the reactor core performs as expected, followed by power range testing to test the reactor in a variety of situations up to full power. The final phase of testing, 'fast cruise', tests the reactor and propulsion systems at high power for a sustained period. Following completion of the tests HMS Ambush will be handed over to the Royal Navy for sea trials.

In February this year power range testing was completed for the new reactor core for HMS Vigilant at Devonport Dockyard following refuelling in November 2010 as part of the submarine's mid-life refit.

In its annual report for 2011 the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator, highlighting the number of safety incidents resulting from poor control of work, warned that managers would need to be “committed to active and close attention to this area” during reactor power range tests scheduled to take place during the year.



A visit by a French nuclear-armed Triomphant class submarine to Faslane naval base has raised concerns about safety procedures and risk analysis arrangements.

The visit – believed to have been the first ever visit by a 'French Trident' submarine to Britain – came three years after an underwater collision between Le Triomphant and HMS Vanguard in February 2009. The circumstances of that incident remain a closely guarded secret.

The French submarine was moved slowly under tow from Loch Long into Faslane between 11 am and 2.30 pm on Thursday 2 August.

Scottish CND questioned whether safety arrangements were appropriate for the visit, pointing out that whilst the Ministry of Defence conducts assessments of the risks from British Trident submarines to take account of their nuclear warheads, missiles and nuclear reactors, the French government does not share similar information about its submarines with the UK.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: "It is our policy not to discuss submarine operations as this may compromise the security of these vessels.

"HM Naval Base Clyde is the home of the UK submarine service and as such hosts a wide variety of vessels from Nato countries and our allies throughout the year."



A special meeting of the international Convention on Nuclear Safety has taken place to review learning from last year's nuclear accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor complex in Japan. The meeting, which was co-ordinated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), took place in late August 2012 at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria.

The Convention on Nuclear Safety aims to legally commit participating States operating land-based nuclear power plants to maintain a high level of safety by setting international benchmarks to which signatory states subscribe, covering matters such as emergency planning and the siting of nuclear facilities.

The meeting, the Second Extraordinary Meeting of Contracting Parties to the Convention on Nuclear Safety, was attended by representatives from the 75 nations which have signed the Convention to date. Despite considerable public interest in nuclear safety issues arising from the Fukushima accident and discussions at previous meetings on the need for openness and transparency in the nuclear industry, no non-government organisations were permitted to attend the meeting as observers.

Discussions at the conference were expected to inform and shape UK nuclear emergency planning arrangements, which are currently in a state of flux following the Fukushima accident. The Department of Energy and Climate Change is currently reviewing its ‘Consolidated Guidance’ on nuclear accidents – the national-level guidance provided to all organisations required to have plans in place for dealing with a nuclear emergency in the UK. Arrangements for sizing emergency planning zones around nuclear installations and for allowing 'extendibility' of these zones, should the need arise, are under consideration as part of the review.



The United Kingdom has submitted an annual declaration of stocks of fissile materials to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), accounting for the quantities of fissile materials in its civilian stockpile as of 31 December 2011.

According to the declaration the U.K. had 113.3 tonnes of separated unirradiated plutonium at reprocessing facilities, 2.3 tonnes in the form of unirradiated mixed oxide (MOX) fuel, and 1.2 tonnes within in the MOX fuel manufacturing process. An additional 1.4 tonnes of unirradiated plutonium is said to be "held elsewhere."

Of this total of 118.2 tonnes, 27.9 tonnes belonged to foreign countries. Compared with figures for the end of 2010, the amount of plutonium in the stockpile increased by 3.4 tonnes.

In addition, the United Kingdom declared that 8 tonnes of plutonium in spent fuel were held at reactor sites and 24 tonnes in spent fuel were at reprocessing plants awaiting reprocessing.

The declaration also contains information about civilian highly enriched uranium (HEU) holdings. Last year the United Kingdom held 1400 kg of HEU, down from 1404 kg in 2009. This figure has not changed since the 2010 declaration.

Figures for military holdings of fissile materials are exempt from reporting to the IAEA, and are not published by the UK government.



A Ministry of Defence plan to privatise the Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) agency has been strongly criticised in a report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

The report, authored by a range of current and former military and defence industry figures, finds that the MoD's plans appear ill-thought out, could endanger British troops, and are potentially undemocratic. Comparing the plans to other outsourcing deals, such as railway privatisation, the report notes that such deals end up as 'constraining and/or, in practice, more expensive' for all concerned.

The plan to transform the multi-billion pound agency- which provides the armed forces with military equipment- into a government-owned, contractor-operated (Goco) model is being pushed by the ministry's head of equipment, Bernard Gray. Proponents of the plan compare it to the way the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston is currently managed by a consortium of companies.

However, the RUSI report argues that extending the model to DE&S is a high-risk option and the size and scope of the agency's functions are "much more diverse and complex than the development, production and support of nuclear weapons". RUSI questions whether the government needs to engage the private sector to negotiate contracts with other private businesses on its behalf and manage its £16 billion budget.

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