NIS Update: October – November 2010


A mock weapons inspection will take place at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in December as part of the latest phase of the UK – Norway Initiative.

The aim of the exercise will be to test confidence building measures during an inspection so that international inspectors can be allowed access to sensitive sites without endangering nuclear secrets.

The UK – Norway Initiative, an ongoing project between the two nations to develop techniques for the verification of nuclear warhead dismantlement, has role-played two previous mock weapons inspection visits. The inspections took place in Norway at a real Norwegian nuclear site 'dressed up' for exercise purposes, with personnel from the UK playing the role of weapons inspectors from a non-nuclear state.

Four Norwegian laboratories are involved in the UK – Norway Initiative – the Institute for Energy Technology, the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, the Norwegian Radiation Protection Agency, and the Norwegian Seismic Array – together with the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE). The verification non-government organisation VERTIC is acting as an independent observer for the Initiative.

News of the mock inspection was announced in a response to a Parliamentary Question asked by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. Although the exercise will see foreign nationals entering the Atomic Weapons Establishment to conduct verification activities, the test inspection will take place in a mock facility rather than a genuine operational building.

Earlier this month a team of more than 35 international experts took part in an exercise in Jordan organised by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) to simulate an on-site inspection of a mock suspected nuclear test site.


The AWE consortium is aiming to extend its control over the UK's nuclear weapons programme by bidding to take over management of the Coulport nuclear weapons store on the Clyde estuary in Scotland.

AWE plc has confirmed that the company – together with Lockheed Martin UK Strategic Systems and the Marine Division of the Babcock International Group – is bidding for a significant role in elements of the management and operation of the Coulport site.

The unsolicited bid was submitted following a review of operations at Coulport undertaken by AWE in mid 2009. It is currently being assessed by the MOD and a decision on whether to award a contract to the consortium is expected early next year.

Coulport is responsible for storing the UK's Trident nuclear weapon stockpile and arming the four Vanguard class submarines that carry the weapons.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox said: “Since July 2008, the Department has been assessing options on how best to provide elements of Strategic Weapons Systems support at Coulport in the future. One option under review is to engage with an experienced service provider from the private sector to deliver processing, storage and handling activities at Coulport.

“On current plans a decision is expected in early 2011. Irrespective of the outcome, Coulport will remain under the ownership and control of the Ministry of Defence”.

AWE plc was awarded the contract for managing the Atomic Weapons Establishment, where the UK's nuclear weapons are designed, manufactured, maintained, and eventually decommissioned, in 2000. Two years later it was awarded the contract for operating the convoy which routinely transports warheads between AWE sites in Berkshire and Coulport.

Lockheed Martin UK Strategic Systems already works on the UK Trident programme, and Lockheed Martin is one of the parent companies in the AWE plc consortium. Babcock is also heavily involved in nuclear work for the Ministry of Defence, managing part of the Faslane naval base which neighbours Coulport and also the Devonport Royal Dockyard where the Navy's nuclear powered submarines are overhauled (see below).

The bid has provoked anxiety from the trade union Prospect, which represents the 500-plus civilian staff at Coulport, with fears that the main aim of the reorganisation at Coulport is to cut costs and jobs.

Babcock International, one of the companies involved in the Coulport bid, has stated that military spending cuts are likely to be positive for its business as pressure on budgets leads to further outsourcing. The company has had held active dialogue with defence ministers over recent months to discuss how it can help achieve cost savings.


'Aldex 10', the three yearly exercise to test off-site emergency arrangements for the Atomic Weapons Establishment, took place on November 10.

Organised by West Berkshire Council, the exercise brought together the main agencies that would be involved in delivering the response to a radioactive release from an AWE site.

The exercise was a table top exercise intended to test command and control arrangements between responding agencies, with no live deployment of emergency services or other players.

The simulated on-site response during the exercise was led by AWE's Situation Control Centre, with the off-site response co-ordinated by Thames Valley Police. A Gold Control centre was set up at the Thames Valley Police headquarters at Kidlington in Oxfordshire, and Silver Control was located at Reading police station. West Berkshire Council and other responding agencies set up their own response teams to test decision-making and communication during the exercise.

NIS deployed a team of field observers to monitor Aldex 10 and a report on the exercise will be published next month.

A few weeks earlier around 7,000 people from 27 emergency response agencies took part in Exercise Short Sermon 10 to test the Ministry of Defence emergency arrangements for dealing with a nuclear accident at Devonport naval base.

The exercise scenario centred around an accident on board a nuclear powered submarine which had resulted in a release of radioactive material.

Unlike the 'Aldex' exercise, Short Sermon was a full test of emergency arrangements involving everyone working in the naval base. Personnel in the base were required to move to sheltered locations and the exercise simulated the distribution of potassium iodate tablets to members of the public.

The tablets, which can help protect the human body from the uptake of radioactive iodine released during a nuclear reactor accident, are scheduled to be distributed over a two kilometer radius downwind from the site of the accident. Tablet distribution was simulated by teams of Royal Naval personnel delivering notices through letter boxes of local homes.


Members of the 'Prospect' trade union at AWE have voted to take industrial action over the company's annual pay offer to them.

Union leaders have called the offer of a 2 per cent increase in pay from AWE plc “derisory”, claiming that pay for company directors has increased by 43% over the past year and that dividends for the three parent companies which form the AWE consortium have also increased dramatically.

Prospect officer Bob King said: "Staff are furious that so much of that money is going to the controlling consortium and its board with so little going into a reasonable pay settlement for the staff who work at AWE. Some of the controlling companies supply contract staff and services to AWE at vastly inflated costs, which is a continuing burden. In 2009 alone this was over £54 million”.

Prospect has said that its 1,300 members, who represent the majority of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers at AWE, will demonstrate at the site on 23 November. Union members have voted for industrial action short of a strike as they do not wish to disrupt work at AWE, and plan to hold a mass meeting and walk around the perimeter of the Establishment in protest during their lunch break. A work-to-rule has not been ruled out in future if the dispute is not resolved.

AWE said that the action was “extremely disappointing” as the company had tabled the best possible offer in the current economic climate, which it described as fair and equitable. A company spokesperson said: “In view of the affordability constraints faced by the UK Government, and specifically by our customer, the Ministry of Defence, AWE must continue to make savings to enable us to safeguard the future delivery of our programme, and the interests of our employees, for the long term.”


AWE has advised the Ministry of Defence that it is opposed to the storage of waste from decomissioned nuclear powered submarines at either of its main operating sites.

The two AWE sites at Aldermaston and Burghfield were included on a shortlist of twelve sites where the Ministry of Defence is considering storing radioactive waste from decommissioned submarines. Although the sites were not named, their location could easily be deduced by information prepared for the Ministry's Submarine Dismantling Project, which referred two potential storage sites in Berkshire.

However, the September meeting of AWE's Local Liaison Committee was informed that AWE has told the Ministry of Defence that it would be against such a facility being located at its sites. The reasons for this are not yet clear, but it is likely that concerns about difficulty in obtaining planning permission; lack of space on AWE sites; and potential local opposition to the proposals were all factors.

Radioactive waste from decomissioned submarines will require storage for an interim period of at least twenty years while the government chooses a site for and then constructs a permanent national repository for radioactive waste.

In January members of the MoD's Submarine Dismantling Project team met councillors from West Berkshire Council to brief them on the proposals and the choice of candidate sites.

A decision on the location of sites for dismantling retired submarines and storing the radioactive waste will be made by the Ministry of Defence following public consultation which was originally scheduled to commence early in the New Year, but now appears to have been delayed.


A worker at the Devonport Royal Dockyard has been contaminated with radioactive material during refit work on Trident submarine HMS Vigilant.

The event occurred when work was underway on a Pump Discharge tank removed from the submarine. Unexpected levels of radioactivity were found on the tank and subsequent chest monitoring of an employee who had been working on the tank revealed the presence of cobalt 60 inside his body.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) the contaminated tank has been quarantined and moved to an active storage building under the dockyard's Health Physics monitoring control regime. HSE is concerned that the incident has revealed a potential systemic incident in the radiological Manageable Tasks process at the dockyard, and is currently considering undertaking regulatory action against Devonport Royal Dockyard Limited (DRDL), a subsidiary of Babcock International Group which is licensed to run the Devonport dockyard.

HMS Vigilant is in the middle of a three and a half year mid life refit at Devonport, predicted to cost £300 million, and is expected to re-enter service in 2012.

HSE has also expressed concern about the pace of work on the Periodic Review of Safety at Devonport – the regular ten year review of nuclear safety standards and operating procedures at the base. Actions scheduled as part of the review programme have not been completed by DRDL to HSE's satisfaction, and the regulator has written to DRDL insisting on improved performance. Despite receiving a reply from the company proposing a change in methodology for the Periodic Review of Safety HSE remains concerned that delivery of the programme has the potential to undermine DRDL’s ability to continue to carry out some nuclear work, and intends to closely monitor future work.


The French government has announced that it will host a meeting of the Permanent Five (P5) members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America) in Paris in spring 2011 to discuss nuclear arms control.

The meeting aims to revitalize the work of the Disarmament Conference and advance negotiations on multilateral disarmament, and is intended to build on the P5 conference which took place in London in autumn 2009 to discuss confidence-building measures towards nuclear disarmament in the run up to this year's Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.

The meeting will discuss commitments given by the P5 nations as part of the action plan agreed at the NPT Review Conference, and is likely to include discussion on trust-building measures, transparency, and a standard reporting framework on nuclear stockpiles.

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