NIS has received more information about Abnormal Events at AWE Aldermaston – this time in the A45 facility that undertakes much of the work with uranium and other radioactive metals at Aldermaston.
A45 is one of Aldermaston's older facilities, and the Health and Safety Executive has permitted it to continue operating until March 2016, subject to an improvement programme being completed for the building. After this the facility will be replaced by Project Pegasus – the proposed new enriched uranium facility at Aldermaston.
The information about abnormal events at A45 was received a few days ago in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act which we sent to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to try to find out whether the risks associated with work in the facility had been adequately addressed in the Pegasus proposals. Our original request was submitted in March 2009 and planning permission for Project Pegasus was granted in February 2010 – which perhaps gives an indication of how well the MoD is doing in dealing with Freedom of Information requests.
The reports are only a selection from those generated over the last ten years. NIS was informed that over 1000 abnormal events had occurred in A45 between January 2000 and mid 2009, and so our request was limited only to certain categories of event. We received details of 33 different incidents which had occurred over this period.
As is frequently the case with documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, sensitive details have been redacted out, so it is not always easy to work out exactly what happened during each incident. However, the document lists a number of intriguing and potentially alarming events which have happened in the A45 facility. Several of these relate to errors in labelling, paperwork, and safety assessments which could have led to criticality rules and safety arrangements being breached. In one example – an incident which took place in June 2009 – staff preparing an off-site shipment noticed that the transport container contained a component of some kind which apparently contained radioactive material which had been unaccounted for in criticality calculations. An audit of radioactive material holdings conducted in January 2001 identified a number of items which had been stored in breach of radioactive assay limits, and in September 2000 three suspect 200 litre drums were found stored away from an approved location. Luckily, these and other errors were spotted before any harm could result, and action was taken to 'embargo' the relevant work areas.
Other problems related to waste streams and exhaust gas ventilation systems. During the Christmas break in 2001 two airborne discharges operated for longer than the approved two week period, requiring AWE to notify the Environment Agency about the breach. On two occasions staff experienced problems when using welded bags to enclose radioactive materials, and on one of these occasions staff appear to have become contaminated at a low level.
On a more positive note, the majority of these incidents (62%) occurred over the period 2000 – 2003, hopefully indicating the AWE is learning from its mistakes and that safety performance is improving over the years.
A copy of the A45 Abnormal Events reports released to NIS can be downloaded from Rapidshare. The document is 1 MB in size and will take around 40 seconds to download over a broadband connection.