ASTRAL BEND: JOINT US – UK EMERGENCY EXERCISE
Nuclear emergency response teams from the USA and the UK took part in a joint exercise in May to test procedures for responding to an accident involving a nuclear weapon.
The exercise, Astral Bend 10, took place over the two days 12 – 13 May, with field operations at the Sculthorpe military training ground near Fakenham in Norfolk and desk-top rehearsals at the US Air Force base at RAF Mildenhall.
Although US nuclear weapons are no longer based at US Air Force bases in the UK, aircraft carrying nuclear weapons may be routed to fly across the UK and the aim of the Astral Bend exercise was to test emergency response interactions between the different agencies which would be involved in dealing with an accident involving a US nuclear weapon in the UK.
As well as the UK Ministry of Defence's Nuclear Accident Response Organisation (NARO) and other military units, the US Air Force and the US Department of Energy's Accident Response Group (ARG) were also involved in the exercise. Civilian agencies participating included Norfolk Constabulary, Norfolk County Council, and the Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service.
The role of the ARG is to provide technical expertise and specialist support to help the US military in responding to an incident involving nuclear weapons. The group's task is to assess the condition of the nuclear weapon involved in an accident and then 'render it safe' to prevent the damaged warhead from producing a nuclear yield before transporting the debris back to the USA for further analysis.
Arrangements for co-operation between the US and UK governments in the event of an accident involving a US nuclear weapon in the UK have been developed through a Joint Working Group under the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement, which defines the nuclear relationship between the two countries. Joint Working Group ('Jowog') 41 was established in 1985 as a forum for co-operation in the scientific, engineering, safety, and environmental fields associated with the effects and potential hazards of an accident or mishap involving nuclear warheads.
Joint exercises of procedures for dealing with an accident involving a US nuclear weapon in the UK have taken place roughly every three to four years since 1985. The last such exercise, Dimming Sun 2003, took place in June 2003, involving more than 2000 US and UK personnel for over a week and culminating with a mock news conference where emergency agencies rehearsed dealing with questions from the media. In contrast Astral Bend 10 is a much smaller exercise, involving around 100 people in a two day exercise with a low media profile.
A Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokeswoman said: "The aim of the exercise is to test the MoD, US Immediate Response Force and civil emergency response interactions, inter-operability and co-operation in the extremely unlikely event of an accident involving a US Air Force aircraft carrying US nuclear weapons.
"No radioactive contaminants will be used during the exercise and members of the public will not be affected."
A smaller scale nuclear emergency exercise also took place at AWE Aldermaston on 12 May, concurrently with the Astral Bend exercise, to rehearse procedures for dealing with an on-site accident at Aldermaston.
NON-PROLIFERATION TREATY REVIEW CONFERENCE UNDERWAY IN NEW YORK
The five-yearly review conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – the main treaty preventing the global spread of nuclear weapons – began on 3 May at the United Nations in New York. The month long conference will aim to issue a consensus document outlining strategies for strengthening the international non-proliferation regime and moving towards nuclear disarmament which are supported by all nations who have signed the treaty
The previous NPT review conference in 2005 was bogged down for two weeks over procedural issues and ended in failure without a consensus document. However, participants at this year's meeting had dealt with all the meeting's procedural business by the third day, leaving the way clear for detailed discussions which will take place through three panels that will consider the major NPT issues – nonproliferation, disarmament, and civilian uses of nuclear power.
Unlike most other nations attending the conference, the UK has not yet made an opening statement announcing its position before the negotiations because of the general election. A UK statement is expected once it has been approved by the new government's Foreign Secretary.
Excellent daily updates from the NPT conference can be found on Rebecca Johnson's blog on the Acronym Institute website and a comprehensive range of resources relating to the conference can be found on the 'Reaching Critical Will' website.
UK-NORWAY INITIATIVE PRESENTATION IN NEW YORK
Organisations involved in the UK – Norway Initiative – a unique collaboration between a nuclear-weapon state (UK) and a non nuclear-weapon state (Norway) to explore verification issues associated with nuclear disarmament – have presented the findings of their research programme to NPT delegates and other specialists during the NPT Review Conference in New York.
The UK – Norway Initiative was designed to develop new technologies and methods for use in confirming whether nuclear weapons have been dismantled, which will be needed as part of any programme to eliminate nuclear weapons in order to confirm whether states are keeping to their disarmament promises.
The Initiative has been led by the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority and the UK Ministry of Defence, with the non-government organisation VERTIC (Verification Research, Training and Information Centre) participating as an independent observer. Four Norwegian laboratories and the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) have worked together on the technical verification of nuclear arms control, and have together developed an 'information barrier' which can confirm the presence of weapons-grade radioactive materials without revealing classified information, and organised a 'managed access' programme for inspecting sites involved in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Two managed access exercises have taken part at a mock nuclear site in Norway under the programme: a familiarization visit which took place in December 2008 and a full monitoring exercise, which took place in June 2009.
VERTIC Executive Director Andreas Persbo said that the initiative has shown that practical exercises are needed to explore and test verification choices for nuclear disarmament, and gave a reassurance that co-operation of this kind need not pose proliferation risks since the programme had shown that such risks could be managed with appropriate precautions. Ultimately, he said, trust and confidence play a fundamental role in nuclear disarmament verification processes. Nuclear-weapon states needed to accept some level of inspection intrusiveness whilst at the same time national security concerns need to be respected. Verification work will require participants to cultivate a culture of managing the risks of divulging sensitive information.
“At VERTIC, it is our conclusion that in spite of several practical problems encountered during the project, there is nothing to suggest that the verification of warhead dismantlement is not technically feasible”, he stated.
Work on the UK – Norway Initiative will continue and the feasibility of holding experiments on British territory in future stages of the project has been discussed, with the aim of “using more complex and real materials, and more realistic environments”.
An independent observers' report on the project will be published by VERTIC in Autumn 2010, and a working paper presented to the NPT Review Conference can be downloaded here.
SUBMARINE SAFETY CONCERNS RAISE QUESTIONS ABOUT MOD NUCLEAR REGULATION
A string of safety shortfalls affecting the UK's nuclear submarine fleet and the Clyde Submarine Base have been exposed by investigative journalist Rob Edwards over recent weeks.
Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that nuclear submarines have been using berths around the British coast despite concerns about safety measures to protect people living nearby; two of the Navy's nuclear submarines went to sea with a potentially disastrous safety problem; and that hundreds of safety failures, pollution leaks and environmental incidents have occurred at the Clyde Submarine Base in Scotland.
Safety plans flawed
A MoD review of safety plans drawn up to protect communities around operational berths for nuclear powered submarines has condemned the plans as flawed, inaccurate, and outdated.
A memo from the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator (DNSR), the MoD's internal regulator on nuclear matters, warns that the Navy's safety planning would fail to protect people from radioactive leaks from submarine reactors, significantly mis-stated the likelihood of a major accident, and in some places did not take account of the risk of collisions with cruise liners and commercial shipping.
The DNSR memo concludes that the safety statements for submarine berths "do not fully provide the level of safety substantiation expected". But it continues: "However, DNSR does not consider it appropriate to challenge the extant regulatory consent to use the UK Operational Berths". Instead, the regulator says that it expects the statements to be "significantly improved" by 2011.
Submarines at risk following 'serious incident'
A second document obtained by the journalist has revealed that two of the Navy's nuclear submarines went to sea with a potentially disastrous safety problem that left both vessels at risk of a catastrophic accident.
Safety valves designed to release pressure from steam generators in an emergency were completely sealed off when HMS Turbulent and HMS Tireless left port. The problem arose after the valves were replaced by “test blanks” during repair and maintenance work at the Devonport Naval dockyard. The blanks should have been removed before the submarines left the dockyard, but remained in place because of “poor” safety discipline at Devonport. The problem was undetected for more than two years on HMS Turbulent, and over a year on HMS Tireless.
A Ministry of Defence memo describes both cases as “a serious incident” that raised major questions about “weak and ambiguous” safety procedures at Devonport dockyard and within the Royal Navy.
Chronic safety lapses at Scottish submarine bases
Finally, safety reports for the Clyde Submarine Base reveal the massive scale of safety problems at the Faslane and Coulport nuclear bases. The reports reveal a catalogue of nuclear accidents, radioactive contamination incidents and fires over the last two years and highlight “shortfalls” in the safe management of nuclear weapons at Coulport.
The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and DNSR have also warned that facilities for handling radioactive waste at Faslane are unsatisfactory, and have set a deadline of 2014 for complete replacement of the facilities.
Over the last two years there have been 167 nuclear safety incidents, 17 of which led to releases of radioactivity or had the potential to do so. In the majority of cases, the root cause was said to be human error.
In response, the MoD pointed out that “The vast majority of nuclear safety events recorded at HMNB Clyde refer to procedural errors and not safety concerns”.
The revelations raise questions over the capability of DNSR, the MoD's internal regulator, and its ability to control safety standards within the MoD's nuclear programmes. The regulator's reluctance to challenge poor practice by withdrawing consent for operations, and the legacy of safety shortfalls which has developed under its supervision of Faslane and Coulport, suggest that is a toothless watchdog.
NIS and other monitors of the military nuclear programme have long called for military nuclear bases such as Faslane and Coulport to be placed under independent regulation by the Health and Safety Executive's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (HSE NII), and have called for DNSR to become part of the government's proposed new regulator for the nuclear sector.
A similar catalogue of safety shortfalls at AWE Burghfield led to the site being placed under 'special measures' by HSE at the end of 2007, with each operation requiring individual permission to go ahead until a safety improvement programme for the site had been completed to HSE's satisfaction.
NEWS FROM THE ATOMIC WEAPONS ESTABLISHMENT
JOBS CUT AT AWE
The Atomic Weapons Establishment has confirmed that up to 100 more jobs will be lost as part of its current restructuring programme aimed at reducing operating costs.
Fifty-nine people have already lost their jobs since the restructuring programme commenced in autumn 2009, with three compulsory redundancies. Trade unions at AWE have been told that up to 100 more job losses will take place over the coming months, and a process has begun to identify volunteers in the areas where reductions must be made.
As reported in the last edition of 'NIS Update', AWE recently 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.
DATE SET FOR BOUNDARY HALL PLANNING INQUIRY
A date has now been set for a public inquiry into the proposed Boundary Hall housing development near AWE Aldermaston.
Basingstoke and Deane District Council has granted planning permission for development of 115 new houses by Cala Homes at the site, which is adjacent to the AWE site on Aldermaston Road, Tadley, but the decision was subsequently challenged by the Health and Safety Executive on safety grounds because the development falls within an emergency planning zone for AWE Aldermaston.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has now appointed an inspector to conduct a public inquiry into the decision, which will commence on 12 October 2010 and run for eight days. The inquiry will be held at the Civic Office, Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council, London Road, Basingstoke.
Interested parties can attend the inquiry and, at the Inspector's discretion, may submit evidence. Written observations on the case can be sent to the Planning Inspectorate, Room 4/104, Temple quay House, 2 the Square, Temple quay, Bristol, BS1 6PN (email email@example.com) quoting reference APP/H1705/V/10/2124548.
Meanwhile, Baughurst residents are planning to report Basingstoke and Deane Borough council to the Local Government Ombudsman after it emerged that planning permission for a development in Shystack Lane was granted without consultation with HSE, contrary to planning procedures for the area.
HSE staff have advised AWE's Local Liaison Committee that mobile homes and caravans are considered suitable dwellings within the emergency planning zones for AWE as long as they are accommodated within site emergency response plans.
FORMER AWE DIRECTOR TAKES THE HELM AT SANDIA CORPORATION
In a move which underlines the close links between the UK and US nuclear weapons programmes, Paul Hommert has been appointed as the new president of Sandia Corporation and director of Sandia National Laboratories.
Dr Hommert worked at AWE from January 2000 to March 2003 as director of research and applied science as part of the Lockheed Martin team at AWE when the management contract for the Establishment was first awarded to a consortium comprised of Lockheed Martin, Serco, and British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (later bought out by Jacobs Engineering).
The Sandia National Laboratories are major research and development laboratories for the US National Nuclear Security Administration, with the primary mission of developing, engineering, and testing non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons. The laboratories are managed and operated by the Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin.
AWE's Local Liaison Committee has been informed that radiation monitoring undertaken by the Food Standards Agency for the River Thames has concluded that “a slight increase in dose rates recorded on the riverbanks at Pangbourne and Mapledurham was observed, although there is no evidence to link this to the operations or discharges from [AWE] Aldermaston”. AWE has told the Committee that this is not attributable to their operations as direct discharges to the River Thames via the Pangbourne Pipeline ceased when the pipeline was closed in 2005. However, it is not clear whether the increase in radiation may have been caused the the transport or accumulation of contaminated material deposited while the pipeline was still in operation.
Consultation by AWE on options for decommissioning the Pangbourne Pipeline has still to be launched, and is currently awaiting a final business evaluation by AWE's Executive Board.
AWE PLANNING APPLICATIONS
AWE has recently submitted two planning applications to West Berkshire Council for minor works at the Aldermaston site. The first application is for approval of design details for the sustainable drainage scheme for the Gemini office accommodation development, and the second is for amendment to external elevations to form an emergency assembly building.
The planning application for a new hydrodynamics research facility at Aldermaston, Project Hydrus, is scheduled to be submitted later this month.