NIS Update: February 2012


Significant safety shortfalls continue to dog the Clyde submarine base, where the UK's nuclear weapons and submarines are based, according to a Ministry of Defence (MoD) safety report released to the Sunday Herald newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act.

The 2010 annual review of safety for the Faslane and Coulport bases reveals that 11 out of 13 key activities have been declared unsatisfactory after assessments by site managers and regulators.

Nine activities were categorised as “below standard”, suffering from “some specific weaknesses”.  Activities in this category included weapons safety, safety culture, maintenance, safety performance indicators, site safety case, nuclear safety event reporting, and conventional health and safety including fire safety.

Two activities – organisational change and operator experience feedback – were described as “significantly below standard” with “flawed” practices or procedures.   Details of the precise nature of the safety weaknesses were not given in the review.

Only two of the 13 subject areas were considered to be “adequate”– emergency arrangements and radiation safety and waste management.  However, the report revealed that a new plant for treating radioactive waste from submarine reactors which was meant to have been in operation by 2014 will not now come into service before 2017, raising concerns that treatment standards may drop if the life of the aging plant is extended.

The majority of operations at the Clyde bases are overseen by the Ministry of Defence's own internal regulator, the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator, rather than the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency which have the power to prosecute site operators which do not comply with  safety and environmental standards.


West Berkshire Council has granted planning permission to the Ministry of Defence's Defence Infrastructure Organisation for construction of a new Technology Development Centre at the Atomic Weapons (AWE) Aldermaston.  The Council's Eastern Area Planning Committee voted unanimously to give the development the go-ahead at a meeting on 8 February 2012.

The Technology Development Centre will be part of the UK's contribution to a joint UK – France warhead research programme known as 'Project Teutates'.  The Centre will develop radiographic instrumentation for monitoring and analysing the results of hydrodynamic research experiments which will be conducted at a new joint research facility at Valduc in France.  The Aldermaston and Valduc facilities are both scheduled to commence operation in 2015.

The Defence Infrastructure Organisation has also notified West Berkshire Council that demolition of the former A3 complex is to take place during the spring of 2012.  The A3 facility was built in the 1950's and consists of several separate buildings including a former laboratory handling radioactive materials, an office building, a ventilation stack, a materials store, workshop, mess room and pump house which, according to the Ministry of Defence, have reached the end of their economic life.  The complex was closed in 1995 and has been undergoing post-operative clean out work since then.

The Council has taken the view that the demolition work is covered by the terms of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, meaning that planning permission is not needed before the work commences.


A response to a Freedom of Information Act request to West Berkshire Council has showed that the Council received over £180,000 in various payments from AWE during the 2010-11 financial year.

The largest sum given to the Council was made in two payments totalling £112,600 for section 278 supervision fees for AWE highway works.  A £27,655 recharge for the 'Aldex 10' emergency planning exercise and other AWE related work required by the REPPIR regulations was also made, and AWE gave the Council £5,000 towards the cost of an energy efficiency officer post and £578 for a multi-activity day held at the Waterside Centre.

The Council received £37,350 in fees for planning applications for AWE sites during the year, the majority of which was for the 'Project Hydrus' planning application, although no section 106 developer contributions were made by AWE during the year.

West Berkshire Council also collected £2,910,000 in business rates from the Ministry of Defence for the AWE Aldermaston and Burghfield sites, although this money was passed on directly to central government for the national business rates pool and was not retained by the Council.


In November the Environment Agency issued two Warning Letters to AWE for failing to provide data about radioactive discharges from Aldermaston and Burghfield as required by conditions set in Environmental Permits issued by the Agency.  Although the data was eventually provided, the Agency said it was “particularly disappointing” that enforcement action was required as a similar warning had previously been issued in November 2010.

On a more positive note, the Environment Agency conducted a pollution prevention and hazardous waste inspection at the Mensa construction site at AWE Burghfield in November 2011.  The site was found to be well run and there was evidence of good environmental management practice being widely used across the site.


A Freedom of Information Act request has revealed that Berkshire fire crews were called to AWE Aldermaston at an average rate of four times per week between 2000 and 2011.  Over the 11 year period the fire service was called to the site to deal with an explosion, gas leaks, an unexploded shell, staff being overcome by fumes and fire breaking out in a radiation building.

The request, made to the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service (RBFRS) by the Basingstoke Gazette newspaper, provided information about 2,252 call-outs to the Aldermaston site between 1 April 2000 and 5 August 2011.  Of this total, 1,851 were triggered by automatic alarms, the majority of which did not require firefighters to attend.  However, 158 real fires broke out on site over the period, most commonly starting in bins, ashtrays and kitchens.

The records show that just days after a controversial fire in an explosives handling facility on 3 August 2010, two further fires were recorded at Aldermaston – on August 5 and August 16.  They were extinguished by on-site personnel without the need for RBFRS crews to attend.

Fires in an unidentified radiation building and in high voltage electrical equipment were logged by RBFRS in 2006 and in February 2008 four personnel at AWE were overcome by fumes after a fire.   Chemical leaks and spillages were also revealed in the RBFRS data, which lists four chlorine leaks and spills and one nitric acid spill, which was contained by AWE staff.  A leak of an isocyanate chemical, used for making foams, left two AWE staff needing treatment on-site in August 2000.

Six suspect packages were also flagged up to RBFRS over the period, including one that turned out to be a packed lunch and another a bag of clothing.

RBFRS are notified every time a reported incident or alarm is investigated by AWE's own on-site fire and rescue service.  All calls to AWE sites are logged by RBFRS but fire appliances do not attend automatic fire alarms at any premises, including AWE, unless they are reported as a confirmed fire.


An army bomb disposal team was called in to AWE Aldermaston to deal with a suspect package discovered at the site during a training exercise at the AWE Aldermaston fire station.

The team was called to the site immediately when the package was discovered on 10 January 2012.  An exclusion zone was set up within the site and two buildings in the vicinity were evacuated while the matter was investigated.  The package was eventually found to be non-malicious.


The International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) has published its sixth annual report on global nuclear weapon and fissile material stockpiles and production.

The report provides updated estimates for global and national stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, and identifies recent developments in military and civilian fissile material production capabilities.

IPFM estimates that in 2011 the total global stockpile of nuclear weapons was over 19,000 weapons, with the United States and Russia together holding over 18,000 of these weapons.  All the nuclear weapon states are modernising their arsenals and in some cases building new weapon production infrastructure.

The global stockpile of highly enriched uranium is estimated to be about 1440 tonnes, about 35 tons less than one year ago.  The vast majority of these stocks are held by nuclear weapon states, with non-nuclear weapon states holding about 20 tons of highly enriched uranium.  The global highly enriched uranium stockpile is shrinking as Russia and the United States slowly blend down stocks that they have declared to be in excess of their military needs.

The global stockpile of separated plutonium is about 495 tonnes, roughly half produced for weapons use and half produced in civilian reprocessing programs in the nuclear weapon states. About 98 per cent of all separated plutonium is held by the nuclear weapon states.  The stockpile of separated plutonium for weapons continues to increase because of production in India, Pakistan, and perhaps Israel.

IPFM is an independent group of arms-control and nonproliferation experts which aims to analyze the technical basis for practical and achievable policy initiatives to secure, consolidate, and reduce stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium – the key ingredients in nuclear weapons.


A report prepared by Scottish CND has highlighted the difficulties that a vote for Scottish independence would pose for the UK's nuclear weapons programme.  'Trident – Nowhere to Go' examines in detail potential alternative locations for Trident outside Scotland and concludes that none of these are viable.

Possible alternative sites such as Devonport, Barrow, Portland, Falmouth and Milford Haven were all discounted in a secret study by the Ministry of Defence in 1963 when the government was searching for sites to base the Polaris nuclear fleet.  They are even less viable now for environmental, financial, and political reasons.  Moving Trident to the US or France would not be viable, because the Non-Proliferation Treaty would prevent the UK from using existing facilities and new ones would have to be built.

The report was published as the temperature of political debate over Trident in Scotland rises, with First Minister Alex Salmond stating “"It is inconceivable that an independent nation of 5.25 million people would tolerate the continued presence of weapons of mass destruction on its soil" and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond threatening that a newly independent Scotland would be forced to pay towards the costs of relocating Trident.

Despite taking an official position that there are no plans to consider alternative locations for basing Trident. the Financial Times has reported that the Ministry of Defence is considering contingency plans for Trident in the event of a Yes vote in the independence referendum.


The Radioactivity in Food and the Environment (RIFE) report for 2010 has recently been published, giving results of UK-wide monitoring programmes undertaken by a number of government agencies to check radiation levels around nuclear sites.  The report gives a detailed assessment of radioactivity in food and the environment in the UK and public exposure to radiation.

Data in the report indicates that public exposure to radiation around each nuclear site in 2010 was below legal limits; radioactivity in food was within government standards; and concentrations of radionuclides in food and the environment around nuclear licensed sites were similar to previous years.
The report includes data from monitoring programmes at individual nuclear sites, including Ministry of Defence sites.


The Ministry of Defence, AWE, and their Norwegian partner organisations have pledged to give an update on progress with the UK – Norway Initiative during a side event at the 2012 Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, to be held between 30 April –11 May 2012 in Vienna, Austria.

The UK – Norway Initiative allows collaboration between a nuclear-weapon state (UK) and a non nuclear-weapon state (Norway) to explore verification issues associated with nuclear disarmament, and is intended to develop new technologies and methods for use in confirming whether nuclear weapons have been dismantled –  a necessary part of any programme to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Activities that have taken place in the current phase of the project include a managed access verification inspection exercise conducted at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in December 2010.  The results of the exercise have not yet been published, although MoD say they have been used to identify future areas for joint research during the UK – Norway Initiative.

The PrepCom event will take the form of a verbal presentation and a hard copy report, both of which will be publicly released after the PrepCom.  MoD sees PrepCom presentations as the main focus of communication efforts relating to the UK – Norway Initiative, providing an opportunity to outline progress on the Initiative to the international community, NGOs, and other interested parties.    Further follow-up presentations are anticipated in future years as the Initiative progresses.


The Minister of State for Energy, Charles Hendry, has asked the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) to review  plans for construction of a national repository for higher activity radioactive waste in the hope of bringing the opening date for the repository forward from the currently planned target date of 2040 to 2029.

He has also asked the NDA look at reducing the timescales for placing high level waste in the repository (currently scheduled to commence in 2075) as well as management of spent fuel and waste from new build power stations.

The NDA has published a preliminary response to the Minister's request which identifies three scenarios which might allow the construction project to be accelerated: procuring additional resources and transfer of technology from overseas; taking a different approach to implementation with phased site investigation, safety case development, permissioning and disposal for different waste types; and a more novel scenario based on a staged approach with alternative disposal methods.  

The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management has been asked by the Department of Energy and Climate Change to give its formal views on the NDA proposals.

Geological disposal is the government’s preferred approach for the management of higher activity radioactive waste in England and Wales.  This would involve placing radioactive wastes in an underground repository deep within a suitable rock formation which provides long-term protection by acting as a barrier against escape of radioactivity and by isolating the waste from effects at the surface such as climate change.  Work on the project is currently only in the preparatory period and may take decades to complete.

Invitations have been sent out to local authorities to express an interest in hosting the repository. To date, only Copeland District, Allerdale District and Cumbria County Councils have done so. The three councils have formed the West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely partnership to establish whether West Cumbria should take part in the search for a site for the repository.

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