REDUCTION IN UK NUCLEAR WARHEAD NUMBERS BEGINS
The Ministry of Defence has announced that the programme for implementing reductions in the number of UK nuclear warheads outlined in last year's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) has now commenced.
The SDSR promised that the number of nuclear warheads on board each Vanguard class submarine would be reduced from a maximum of 48 to a maximum of 40 with no more than eight operational missiles on board each submarine, and that the number of operational warheads would be cut from fewer than 160 to no more than 120.
In a written ministerial statement Defence Secretary Liam Fox said that the programme for reducing warhead numbers had now begun.
The programme of work to complete warhead and missile reductions across the Vanguard fleet will be completed within the schedules of the Royal Navy’s operational programme but is expected to have been completed within the current Parliament. At least one submarine already carries a maximum of 40 warheads but it does not appear that the 40 warhead ceiling will apply across the fleet until the programme has been fully implemented.
Dr Fox has promised to update Parliament when the changes have been made across the whole of the Vanguard fleet and the SDSR commitment to reduce the number of operational warheads has been achieved.
The government expects that plans to reduces the UK's overall warhead stockpile to no more than 180 warheads will be completed by the mid 2020s – probably because the aging warhead assembly / disassembly facilities at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Burghfield are unable to cope with the decommissioning workload, and so significant volumes of work cannot commence before a new facility is opened in 2016.
P5 MEET IN PARIS TO DISCUSS NUCLEAR ISSUES
Representatives of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the P5) met in Paris on 30 June to exchange information on their nuclear weapons programmes, transparency on nuclear issues, and methods for verifying disarmament initiatives. The meeting aimed to build on a similar P5 conference hosted by the UK in 2009 and take forward implementation of the Action Plan agreed at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in May 2010.
Although the agenda for the Paris meeting has not been released publicly, according to a statement issued after the 2009 conference, the group discussed issues relating to “confidence-building, verification and compliance challenges”, and this year's meeting is expected to cover similar ground. The Final Document of last year's NPT Review Conference committed the P5 to reporting progress on disarmament to the 2014 NPT Preparatory Committee, and the Paris conference will help in preparing the ground and setting up a formal process to allow this to happen.
The meeting was welcomed by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon as a “unique opportunity” for the P5 to implement actions arising from the NPT Review Conference.
DEVONPORT US SUBMARINE ACCIDENT “WHOLLY AVOIDABLE”
A US nuclear submarine came dangerously close to grounding on rocks in Plymouth Sound in December 2006 following an incident in which two crewmen died as it tried to leave Devonport naval base.
The report of the Royal Navy's investigation into the incident, released under the Freedom of Information Act, said that the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Minneapolis-St Paul "came within less than her own length" of hitting rocks and grounding as she turned to get back into safer waters – an accident which would have had “catastrophic consequences”.
The submarine set sail in rough weather and as the harbour pilot tried to leave the commanding officer swung the vessel round into the waves, exposing crew members on deck to the full force of the sea. As the submarine turned to return to safety it came dangerously close to the rocks of the Panther Shoal in Plymouth Sound.
The two crew members who died were moored to the submarine with safety lines but were repeatedly dashed against the hull by the force of the 20 foot waves. Three other crew members were swept into the rough seas before being rescued, and “considerable quantities” of seawater entered the submarine through an open hatch, leaving the submarine's mess 18 inches deep in water.
The report said: "This was a severe incident with multiple loss of life. There was a very real possibility of the boat grounding in very rough seas and on an ebb tide some 500 yards south of Plymouth breakwater”.
Responsibility for the “severe and wholly avoidable incident” lay principally with the submarine's commanding officer, who was later relieved of his post, but the report was also critical of the lax safety regime and culture at the Devonport Naval base. The report revealed that Navy had failed to heed warnings and share lessons learnt after a similar incident in February 2006 when three British submariners were trapped on the casing of HMS Sovereign after being hit by a large wave when leaving Plymouth.
ROSYTH AND DEVONPORT CONFIRMED AS CANDIDATE SITES FOR SUBMARINE DISMANTLING
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has confirmed that Rosyth and Devonport Royal Dockyards will be the two candidate sites for the dismantling of nuclear powered submarines which have been withdrawn from service.
The two sites were identified during an initial screening stage of the MoD's Submarine Dismantling Project, and have now been confirmed as suitable locations following consultation with government agencies on the scope of the Strategic Environmental Assessment study into significant environmental effects caused by submarine dismantling activities.
MoD has proposed that radioactive parts of the submarines will be removed at one or both of the candidate sites, although no view has yet been put forward on the more controversial question of where radioactive waste from the submarines will be stored.
Public consultation on the Strategic Environmental Assessment process for the Submarine Dismantling Project is expected to commence in the autumn.
NUCLEAR EMERGENCY PLANNING ARRANGEMENTS UNDER REVIEW
The government has announced that it will be reviewing the UK's national nuclear emergency arrangements in response to recommendations made in a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report on the Fukushima nuclear emergency in Japan.
Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, has informed HSE that the government intends to carry out a review of the Japanese response to the events at Fukushima and identify any lessons for UK emergency planning, review the UK’s own national nuclear emergency arrangements to ensure that they are robust enough to deal with a prolonged nuclear incident, and co-operate internationally to ensure that information is shared in a timely and open manner in the event of any future global nuclear accident.
The review of the Japanese response to the Fukushima emergency is to be completed by the end of the year and is intended to ensure that UK evacuation plans for nuclear emergencies and other disasters are robust, practical, and appropriate.
At the same time, a review of the capacity and capability of the UK’s nuclear emergency response arrangements for effectively managing a prolonged nuclear emergency will be undertaken by the Nuclear Emergency Planning Liaison Group, which brings together emergency planners from a range of government agencies and local authorities. The review will compare the UK's emergency response approach to the one used in Japan, consider the responses needed for different accident scenarios, and assess whether radiation and environmental monitoring arrangements are adequate.
A final report from HSE on the events at Fukushima is scheduled to be published in the Autumn.
DEFENCE REFORM REVIEW AIMS TO RESHAPE MoD
Far-reaching changes in how the MoD will run and be managed have been outlined in a newly published report which presents the findings of the Defence Reform Review.
The report outlines plans to change the organisation and management of the MoD to increase accountability and control spending and also decentralise decision making to give military commanders more control. The new management model for the MoD will be "simpler and more cost-effective" and help the Ministry tackle the military challenges and threats of the future, according to Defence Secretary Liam Fox.
The reform follows a 10-month study by the Defence Reform Unit, which Dr Fox set up last year following the Strategic Defence and Security Review. The review's recommendations include reducing the size of the Defence Board by removing the heads of the individual armed forces, giving extra powers to Single Service Chiefs to run their services, and creating a new Joint Forces Command to foster a joint approach to defence matters.
Highlighting the pressing need for changes in management at the MoD, Dr Fox said: "Since becoming Defence Secretary, I have been determined to bring the way the MOD is run into the 21st century. The Department's existing structure and lack of accountability contributed to the dire financial position we inherited.
"We must take action to tackle the drivers of structural financial instability and the institutional lack of accountability endemic across Defence, dealing with the root of our problems as well as the problems themselves.”
NEWS FROM THE ATOMIC WEAPONS ESTABLISHMENT
REPORTS REVEAL SAFETY SHORTFALLS WHICH LED TO AWE FIRE
The Atomic Weapons Establishment has published the report of its internal enquiry into the fire which broke out in a building containing high explosives at the AWE Aldermaston site on 3 August 2010, highlighting a number of safety failings (http://bit.ly/jacNw8)
The inquiry into the fire, chaired by Peter McIntyre, an independent member of AWE's Nuclear Safety Committee, concluded that the production operation that led to the fire “was not carried out in accordance with appropriate process instructions” and had not been authorised to take place on the day of the fire. Failure to comply with operating instructions, explosives safety orders, and planned work schedules “further weakened the barriers to an event involving explosives”.
The report reveals that the work area where the fire took place contained high explosives in excess of the limit specified in the Explosives Safety Order for the building, even though these were not required for the operation being conducted. The report concludes that “this was not best practice and they should not have been in the building”.
There was “a perceived feeling of pressure” among the work team involved in the incident “even though there was no need to complete the task at that time”, and some of the staff present intended to work a shift of up to 16 hours on the night of the fire.
A separate report, released by the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service (RBFRS) following a request under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that the emergency response to the fire was hampered by poor communications, limited resources, and delays in allowing firefighters onto the site.
“Numerous difficulties” were experienced by agencies involved in fighting the fire because of the security status of the AWE Aldermaston site and the time of day the fire broke out, according to the fire service debrief report for the incident (http://bit.ly/iWxe9T).
Fire hydrants on the AWE site were found to be “inefficient” as a result of “a mistake with the opening and closing of sluice valves by a maintenance contractor”, and a special high volume pump had to be brought in from London to act as a standby.
AWE's own on-site responders were ill-prepared to deal with the blaze, which started just after 9 pm and burned throughout the night. Numbers of Ministry of Defence police officers on the base at that time of day were said to be “limited” and there was only one control operator at the on-site AWE fire station, who was “overwhelmed by the demands of the incident and unable to effectively provide the information required”.
The Health and Safety Executive is currently considering whether to take enforcement action against AWE following the fire.
SECRETARY OF STATE SAYS YES TO BOUNDARY HALL DEVELOPMENT NEAR AWE ALDERMASTON DESPITE SAFETY CONCERNS
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has decided to grant planning permission for the controversial 'Boundary Hall' housing development close to the AWE Aldermaston site, ignoring the advice of the independent inspector at last year's planning inquiry into the development.
Planning Inspector Phillip Ware recommended in his report following the inquiry that planning permission for the development at the Boundary Hall site, which is within sight of the perimeter fence of the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, should be refused following an appeal against a the development led by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which is responsible for overseeing emergency planning arrangements around nuclear establishments.
The inspector concluded that HSE's advice against allowing the development to go ahead was justified, and that controls on development intended to limit the size of the population at risk in the event of an accident at AWE had already been breached – a situation which would be worsened if the Boundary Hall development went ahead. He concluded that “there was no clear definition of the likelihood of an off-site event occurring”, raising questions about the basis on which emergency plans for nuclear installations are prepared.
The Secretary of State accepted that it was essential to consider the possibility of future accidents at AWE Aldermaston when deciding whether the development should be permitted, but decided that criteria on population limits around nuclear sites was “intended to be used only for guidance”. As the “sole objection” to the development related to the potential impact on human health of a harmful radiation dose following the “extremely remote” chance of an accident at AWE Aldermaston, his view was that the advantages of building housing on the site outweighed this risk.
The Health and Safety Executive is currently considering whether to appeal against the Secretary of State's decision.
WARNING LETTER SENT TO AWE FOLLOWING DISCHARGE INCIDENTS
In May the Environment Agency sent a warning letter to AWE for failure to meet a pH discharge permit condition when a higher than permitted pH level was observed after an event in March at AWE Burghfield. The Agency also sent two advisory letters to AWE for events that occurred in January at Aldermaston after a discharge of dilute sewage effluent may have entered a water course during a period of heavy rainfall and for allowing an ammonia based de-icing chemical to be released into surface water.
PANGBOURNE PIPELINE: REMOVAL TRIAL TO GO AHEAD
AWE has told its Local Liaison Committee that it has identified two options for decommissioning of the Pangbourne Pipeline, which was used to discharge radioactively contaminated effluent from AWE Aldermaston to the River Thames and closed in 2005. One option is to leave the pipeline in situ and the other would be to remove it and treat the components as radioactively contaminated waste.
AWE is planning to undertake a trial to remove a small part of the pipeline on site at AWE Aldermaston. Following the trial the next steps will be further discussed with landowners and the AWE Local Liaison Committee.
ENVIRONMENT AGENCY REVIEWS AWE PERMITS
AWE has applied to the Environment Agency for a variation to their discharge permit for the AWE Burghfield site. The variation would allow the transfer of some waste contaminated with tritium, created as a result of the monitoring of tritium levels in some of the site's facilities, from Burghfield to Aldermaston. Once transferred to Aldermaston the waste would be disposed of by incideration with similar wastes generated at Aldermaston. The Agency also intends to use the opportunity to change the Burghfield permit to the new format specified by the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2010.
The Environment Agency is currently determining the outcome of this application in consultation with statutory organisations such as the Health and Safety Executive.
AWE is also expected to submit an application to the Agency to vary its permit for non-ferrous materials operations in the near future. The request is likely to result in minor changes to the permit, mainly in relation to reporting requirements. The company has also asked the Agency to consider whether it will be possible to consolidate all its environmental permits for operations at its sites into a single, or fewer, new permit under the format for the Environmental Permitting Regulations, and as a result a review of AWE's permits is under way.