The disinfectant of sunlight

News of recent pollution incidents at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston has reminded me of the bad old days back in the 1970s and 1980s when AWE's safety and environmental record was unimaginably worse than it is now. In those days, during the height of the Cold War, AWE was a law unto itself and health and safety was very much an afterthought to the manufacturing and research work that took place at the Establishment.

During the 1970s and 1980s AWE was placed under immense strain as a result of the demands of designing and manufacturing Chevaline warheads for Britain's Polaris missile system, and later manufacturing a new generation of warheads for the current Trident system. Safety standards took second place to production demands, and newly introduced radiation monitoring techniques began to show an appalling level of worker and building contamination. At least nine workers died as a result of contamination from radioactive material, and up to 40 were reported to have been contaminated. Fear gripped the workforce, and radiation levels were so high in some buildings that staff refused to work in them.

By 1978 the situation was so grave that the Ministry of Defence ordered all work in plutonium processing buildings to stop and announced an inquiry into radiological safety at Aldermaston. The inquiry was led by Sir Edward Pochin, the head of the government's National Radiological Protection Board. Pochin produced a scathing report, which recommended action to increase the numbers of health and maintenance staff and to address problems in unsafe buildings at AWE.

Although Pochin recommended that remedial work should commence as soon as practicable, AWE continued to suffer from chronic staff shortages. Work on a new building programme at Aldermaston was delayed, and housekeeping standards remained poor all the way through the 1980s.

The situation only really began to change when outside scrutiny began to fall on Aldermaston. In 1993 Greenpeace UK published 'Inside the Citadel' (see below) – a ground-breaking report which for the first time revealed what went on at Aldermaston and exposed the site's shocking safety record. The Greenpeace report was produced by a diligent and effective researcher named William Peden – probably the most knowledgeable person on nuclear weapons that I have ever met. Greenpeace sent copies of the report to every media outlet and national embassy that they could think of, and I can still recall William's surprise and shock as he told me that the Israeli Embassy had written back to ask for six more copies to be sent to them.

'Inside the Citadel' recommended that the government should undertake an independent public inquiry into health and safety standards at Aldermaston. The request was dismissed out of hand by the Ministry of Defence, and so at Easter 1993 Greenpeace concreted up the Pangbourne Pipeline, which pumped radioactive effluent from Aldermaston into the River Thames, to highlight their demand. It took AWE over two weeks to remove the blockage, and cost over a million pounds in lost production.

Others shared Greenpeace's concerns, and the fight for a public inquiry was taken up by Reading Borough Council. A committed and competent councillor, John Cook, was head of the Council's Environmental Health Committee, and rather than wait for action from the Ministry of Defence, John persuaded the Council to hold its own Community Inquiry into safety at Aldermaston. Helena Kennedy QC was invited to chair the Inquiry, and a wide range of community groups, schools, and families from the local area gave evidence, many with heart-rending stories of children and loved ones who had been stricken by inexplicable cancers and ill health. The Inquiry was a pivotal moment in the history of AWE, and the company had no option but to participate in the Inquiry itself and give evidence about safety procedures at the site.

Helena Kennedy's report called for more openness and transparency and for increased communication between AWE and the local community. As a result AWE's Local Liaison Committee was set up. In its early days the Liaison Committee took a more assertive view than it does today, but independent-minded councillors like John Cook were gradually replaced by a more sycophantic element and AWE has now succeeded in grooming many committee members to act as champions for its work rather than as watchdogs.

However, a streak of independence survives. Helena Kennedy also recommended setting up a community network to scrutinise AWE, and the network continues to exist and is still functioning. It has undergone a number of changes of name and has had a steady turnover of members over the years, but in its current form exists as the Nuclear Awareness Group (NAG). NAG is 'still nagging away', as the group's secretary puts it, and is still working hard to promote dialogue on nuclear weapons and radiation safety issues. The group's next meeting is in June with the Bishop of Reading as a guest speaker – why not come along if you are based near the Reading area?

The 'disinfectant of sunlight' is often said to be the best remedy to corruption and unaccountability, and recent pollution incidents show that there is still as much a need for a close watch on AWE as there ever was.


A scanned copy of 'Inside the Citadel' can be downloaded from Rapidshare.  The document is 80 MB in size and will take around five minutes to download using broadband.


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