NIS Update: December 2010


Parliament closed for the 2010 Christmas break with no sign of an announcement from the Government on the 'Initial Gate' decision for the Trident replacement programme.

Defence Ministers have stated on several occasions that they will update Parliament on progress with the Trident replacement programme and provide an up-to-date estimate of costs by publishing a report after the Initial Gate decision has been made.  However, the 2010 Parliamentary session ended on Tuesday 21 December with no announcement from Ministers about Initial Gate, indicating that the report will not now be discussed by MPs until Parliament re-opens in the New Year.

The Initial Gate decision marks the end of the concept phase of the programme, committing the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to a firm option for replacement submarines for the Trident nuclear weapons system.  

In July Liam Fox, Secretary of State for Defence, stated: “We are currently planning for Initial Gate decision towards the end of 2010, following consideration by the Investment Approvals Board in the autumn”, and Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament that 'the next phase of the programme to renew our deterrent will start by the end of this year' when he presented the Strategic Defence and Security Review to Parliament in October.  However, the script had changed by mid-November when Dr Fox answered a Parliamentary Question on Initial Gate from Conservative MP Peter Bone by saying that the Initial Gate decision was expected “in the next few weeks”.  

Detailed design work on submarines to replace the current Vanguard class boats will commence after Initial Gate approval, with a final decision on whether to approve construction work on the new submarines scheduled for after the next general election.

The Initial Gate decision was originally scheduled to be taken in Autumn 2009, but has repeatedly slipped back. Recent delays in making the announcement have been caused by the Trident value-for-money review which took place over the summer, and in choosing the nuclear reactor type for the new submarine.  A report by the National Audit Office in 2008 concluded: “The timetable may also be affected by developments in pressurised water reactor technology. The Department needs to decide if it should use a variant of the current reactor design – PWR2 – or develop a new reactor – PWR3 – for the new submarine. There are risks attached to both of these options”.


A key facility for the treatment of radioactive waste from the production of nuclear weapons at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston is years behind schedule, and the Health and Safety Executive's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) has resorted to imposing 'special measures' reporting on AWE in an attempt to force the establishment to deliver the project on time.

In March 2007 NII issued a Licence Instrument requiring AWE to reduce in volume and encapsulate at least 1000 drums of Intermediate Level Waste – waste which is too highly contaminated with radioactive material for disposal in existing facilities – by 20 February 2014.  However, plans to build a Soild Intermediate Level Waste Treatment Plant at Aldermaston to reduce the volume of the waste have slipped dramatically, and NII has ordered AWE to provide monthly updates on progress with the project.

NII is concerned that safety documentation has not been delivered to meet AWE's own project timetable, and a pre-construction safety review is now expected to be two years behind schedule.  A number of technical and safety issues that impact on the proposed civil design have been identified for the treatment plant.

Following an update in August from AWE on progress with the project, the NII wrote to AWE's Director of Infrastructure to warn the company that “Although ND [HSE's Nuclear Directorate] acknowledge that AWE is undertaking significant additional effort on this project, ND is concerned about the amount of slippage in the delivery programme from the dates given in the April 2010 workshop.  This includes AWE's ability to address the issues surrounding the DBA [design basis accident], relevant fault schedules, criticality, civil design and therefore suitability of location.”

Radioactive wastes have accumulated at AWE for sixty years since the site first began work on building the UK's arsenal of nuclear weapons in 1950.  Intermediate level radioactive waste is stored in purpose built stores at AWE Aldermaston and will remain there indefinitely until a national radioactive waste repository for intermediate level waste is opened.  

Read more and download correspondence between NII and AWE about the delay here.


The Environment Agency has issued a formal warning letter to AWE following a radioactive spill at AWE Aldermaston earlier this year.  The spill occurred on 10 June 2010 when a hose connection failed while a tanker used for handling radioactive liquid waste was discharging slightly contaminated liquid into a storage tank.  Although a protective barrier contained some of the spill, the remainder overflowed out of the containment area.

AWE undertook a recovery operation, and analysis showed there was no residual contamination to the ground.  An investigation into the incident has been conducted.

The Environment Agency and the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, AWE's regulators, were notified and the Environment Agency has issued a Warning letter to AWE in respect of the incident for contravention of Regulation 38 of the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010.


Members of the Prospect trade union at AWE have voted in favour of accepting an improved pay offer following a union demonstration and industrial action short of a strike over the award originally offered to AWE staff by management at AWE plc.  A previous offer of an average 2% annual pay rise has now been increased by AWE to 2.5 %, and the new offer will also ensure a more even distribution of the pay award between staff.   The award will be paid with January’s salaries.

Perhaps more significantly, a review of AWE's performance related pay system will also be undertaken and both sides have agreed to meet to discuss industrial relations issues.

Prospect represents around 1,300 workers at AWE.


The Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR) has issued a total of four safety improvement notices requiring action to ensure compliance with regulatory standards for military nuclear programmes over the five year period from 2005 to 2010, according a response to a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act made by NIS.

In the absence of any statutory regulatory powers, safety improvement notices represent an enforcement sanction that DNSR can take against operational units in the event of  a breach of safety standards.  A safety improvement notice can be issued if one of the regulator's findings has a significant impact on safety or if an operational unit's response to a finding has been inadequate.  The action required to resolve the problem outlined in the notice and the period allowed for resolution is agreed between DNSR and the operator.  

The four safety improvement notices were issued in relation to the following matters:


  1. Chairman Naval Nuclear Regulatory Panel Safety Improvement Notice 2005-1 – MOD REPPIR Submission – 19 December 2005.
  2. DNSR Safety Improvement Notice 2006-1 – Air Transport Emergency Arrangements – 25 April 2006 (updated 9 June 2006).
  3. DNSR Safety Improvement Notice – Babcock Event No 19720: Failure to Reinstate Primary Safety Systems – 22 April 2010.
  4. Safety Improvement Notice on Nuclear Propulsion Project Team, Organisation for Delivery of Nuclear Safety by the Approval Authority role – 26 May 2010.

NIS has submitted further information requests to find out more about each of these cases.


The Ministry of Defence and the Home Office have published a new Green Paper to consult on proposals on how the government should acquire equipment, support, and technology in future for defence and security purposes.

The consultation will cover issues such as national security, working with other countries, exports, small and medium-sized enterprises, and cyber security, with the aim of helping industry to plan research and production for military and security technology.  

The Green Paper 'Equipment, Support, and Technology for UK Defence and Security: A Consultation Paper' follows the same direction as the recent Strategic Defence and Security Review in aiming to take a 'smart' approach to defence issues and addressing them as part of a broader national security context.

Consultation will last for three months and is intended to seek feedback on the proposals in the Green Paper from key defence stakeholders, particularly those in industry.  A White Paper setting out the Government's approach to industry and technology policy for defence and security will be published later in 2011.


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