NIS Update: September 2009


 The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has announced future spending plans for the investment and construction programme at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in a low key Ministerial Statement issued during the Parliamentary summer recess. On 9th September 2009 Quentin Davies MP, Under Secretary of State and Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, announced:

“Agreement was reached between the Department and AWE Management Ltd (AWEML) to extend the priced period of work, within the existing overarching 25-year contract, with AWEML to 31 March 2013. This work, providing important investment in skills and facilities at AWE, is valued at an average of around £1 billion per annum and represents the next period of priced work within the nuclear warhead capability sustainment programme.”

Investment spending at AWE has rocketed from £350 million per year in 2005, when the programme was first announced, to the new level of £1 billion per year at a time when the remainder of the public sector is bracing itself for heavy cuts in spending. The agreement between the MoD and AWE is believed to represent a contractual commitment which MoD is now obliged to pay, regardless of the views of any future government on whether to continue with the AWE upgrade programme, and, unusually, was negotiated outside the government's Comprehensive Spending Review process for setting public spending priorities.

Download a special NIS briefing about the AWE spending announcement from:



West Berkshire Council has finally published the new off-site emergency plan for the two AWE sites at Aldermaston and Burghfield. The plan is required under the Radiation (Emergency Preparedness and Public Information) Regulations 2001 (REPPIR) to set out the contingency arrangements for a multi-agency response should a release of radioactive material at an AWE site pose a hazard to the public outside the site boundary.

The new plan represents a major revision from the previous version. Giving an insight into the scale of response which would be required to deal with an emergency at AWE, the plan notes that “An incident with off site consequences at AWE will not be resolved in a few hours.”

Although REPPIR requires off-site emergency plans for nuclear installations to be reviewed every three years, the previous version of the AWE plan was dated January 2004, so the latest version is over two years late.

The plan is available on line from the West Berkshire website at:

A multi-agency exercise to test the plan arrangements is required by law next year, and is currently scheduled to take place on 17 November 2010.



The contentious Boundary Hall planning application to build 115 new homes within sight of the AWE perimeter fence at Tadley has been put on hold by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, but a review of public safety assessments for AWE may pave the way towards allowing future development within the emergency planning zone surrounding AWE sites.

John Denham, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has issued a holding direction to Basingstoke and Deane council to prevent planning permission from being issued while he considers whether he wants to call in the application for determination by civil servants.

The Boundary Hall site falls within a three-kilometre Detailed Emergency Planning Zone surrounding AWE Aldermaston. Population numbers within this zone are close to the maximum limits allowed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which objected to the Boundary Hall application.

AWE is currently reviewing the public safety analysis it is required to undertake under REPPIR. HSE has stated that “AWE’s revised REPPIR assessment may allow us to adopt a graded approach in our consideration of proposed developments within the safeguarding and detailed emergency planning zones”, raising concerns that in the longer term standards may be relaxed to allow development within the emergency planning zone.



The Royal Navy is planning to reduce the size of emergency countermeasures zones which surround the operational berths where nuclear submarines can dock.

Earlier this summer the Ministry of Defence released a new guidance note for local authorities, 'Nuclear Emergency Arrangements Group Paper Number 2' (download available at to provide advice to local councils on preparing emergency plans for submarine berths which are required under REPPIR. The new guidelines recommend that the offsite emergency countermeasures zone for submarine berths should be reduced from a distance of 2 km surrounding a berth to 1.5 km – the minimum size of emergency zone for a nuclear site allowed by HSE.

The new guidance note was issued after revised assessments of potential accidents and their associated consequences had been prepared by MoD. These hazard assessments are classified, and have not been released to the public, although they have been reviewed by HSE. There does not appear to have been any wider public consultation over the decision to reduce the size of the emergency countermeasures zone, and the proposals only came to light when Southampton City Council announced in September that they intended to review the 'Sotonsafe' plan for the nuclear submarine Z-berth at Southampton Docks, and that the new plan would have a smaller emergency countermeasures zone.

Questions remain as to HSE's competence to regulate the Navy's nuclear submarines, whose Pressurised Water Reactors (PWRs) are believed to be of a different design to civil PWRs. HSE is not known to have any inspectors with experience of operation or design of Naval nuclear reactors.

Reactors on board the Royal Navy's submarines are fuelled with highly enriched uranium, which decays to produce radioactive iodine gas. In the event of an accident which breaches the reactor containment and the submarine hull, the iodine gas would vent under pressure, with the potential to contaminate surrounding areas.

A reduction in the size of the emergency countermeasures zone at Southampton would result in almost 6000 households being denied potassium iodide tablets which would act as a prophylactic against the absorption of radioactive iodine in the event of an accident on board a nuclear submarine visiting Southampton Docks.

Solent Coalition Against Nuclear Ships (SCANS) has submitted a detailed report to Southampton City Council advising that the size of the emergency counter measures zone should not be reduced, and has written to the Ministry of Defence and the Health and Safety Executive with requests under the Freedom of Information Act to demand that papers justifying the changes are released.

As well as affecting Southampton, the new emergency arrangements will have implications for submarine berths at naval bases on the Clyde and at Rosyth, Devonport, and Portsmouth; non-military berths at Liverpool docks, Spithead, and several sites in the Scottish islands; and at a number of overseas locations.



Meanwhile, more information has come to light about the safety record for the Royal Navy's nuclear powered submarines.

Earlier this year the Ministry of Defence revealed that since 1988 nuclear powered submarines have been involved in 13 collisions or grounding incidents. As well as the collision between HMS Vanguard and the French nuclear weapons submarine Le Triomphant in February, incidents included the grounding of HMS Trafalgar on Fladda-chuain island in the Minch in 2002, the grounding of HMS Victorious on the Skelmorlie Bank in the Clyde Estuary in 2000, the striking of an iceberg by HMS Tireless whilst on Arctic Patrol in 2003, and a collision between HMS Conqueror and a yacht off the Northern Irish coast in 1988.

MoD has also admitted that since 1987 there have been 234 fire incidents on board nuclear submarines. Most of these were minor incidents that were quickly dealt with, but 21 of these were medium scale fires requiring use of significant onboard resources. The majority of these fires are recorded as having taken place at unspecified locations at sea, or 'alongside', but a number took place whilst a submarine was docked at naval bases on the Clyde, at Devonport, or at Rosyth.

Three more serious fires which required both ship and external resources to extinguish are recorded as occurring on Royal Navy submarines. The first occurred on board HMS Renown – a Resolution class submarine armed with Polaris / Chevaline nuclear weapons – at the Clyde Submarine Base on 17th February 1992, and the second occurred just a few weeks later, on 30th April, on board HMS Turbulent at Devonport. The third fire also happened at Devonport on HMS Trafalgar on 24th October 2003.

When releasing the information Bill Rammell MP, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, stated “Royal Navy submarines are operated to the highest possible safety standards. Personnel are rigorously trained to deal efficiently and effectively with all safety incidents”.


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