“There are still areas of significant challenge at the Aldermaston site” – ONR
The Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston is to remain under enhanced scrutiny for another year.
The nuclear watchdog, the Office for Nuclear Responsibility (ONR), has just published its report in to safety at both Aldermaston and Burghfield in West Berkshire.
The report says the key areas of concern are the ‘ageing facilities and infrastructure.’
The plants build and maintain the UK’s nuclear missile deterrent, Trident.
Eight people were injured at Aldermaston in separate incidents in the last year. Three at Burghfield.
Michael Finnerty, ONR’s operating facilities director, said: “We are maintaining our enabling approach to ensure that further safety improvements necessary at Aldermaston are delivered in a timely fashion and that the safety improvements demonstrated at Burghfield continue to be sustained.
“However, we will continue to hold these sites to account should they fall short of the expected standards.”
The report says Aldermaston has made some progress, but significant improvement will need to be delivered in key areas, with consideration for a move to routine attention not thought likely before the end of 2022 at the earliest.
Paul Rees, AWE’s director of environment, safety and health, said: “There’s more work to be done to meet these projections, but the progress we’ve made to date, particularly at Burghfield, demonstrates our strong commitment to sustained and improved safety performance. We will continue to work closely with the ONR to achieve these standards.”
Not that the locals have any real reason to fear: AWE reassures them there will be no ‘immediate danger’ to anyone. In any case, those running the bomb factory tell the public the chance of an accident is so remote it is not worth worrying about.
Everyone who lives here hopefully knows that in the event of a release of radiation, they will also have to pop to a nearby chemist and stock up on potassium iodide tablets.
Last spring, a blue booklet was circulated advising local residents and businesses what to do in the unlikely event of an emergency at the AWE Aldermaston or Burghfield sites.
Produced by West Berkshire Council and AWE in conjunction with Hampshire, Basingstoke, Reading and Wokingham Borough Councils, it was in response to new Radiation (Emergency Preparedness and Public Information) Regulations.
The booklet contains details about the extent of the emergency planning zones around the AWE Aldermaston and Burghfield sites, along with details of how you would be alerted and what actions to take.
One of the key takeaways is that one should ‘stay indoors’ should such an event occur.
More details here
Bombs transported by road
Because the warheads need to be constantly refurbished, batches are shuttled by road convoy several times a year between the Aldermaston and the Royal Naval Armament Depot at Coulport in Dumbartonshire.
Nukewatch is a group of anti nuclear convoy individuals who monitor and track the movement of British WMD’s from Aldermaston in Berkshire to Coulport on the West coast of Scotland.
“Our best estimate is that nine warheads were returned to AWE and 22 were dispatched to Coulport,” it said.
David Cullen is the director of disarmament pressure group Nuclear Information Service.
“They are in latter stage of upgrade of weapons stock. Earlier this year they said they were increasing the stockpile, introducing more warheads. There was an uptick in convoys last year which might explain this,” he said.
“Most vehicles will carry assembled nuclear weapons. More often on the main roads, but round the sites themselves they use the smaller roads. They have specific vehicles for it and they go in convoy, along with army and police support.
“It is an inherently dangerous activity to be going on with and presents a danger to the public. Nuclear weapons can level cities and these convoys are carrying several at a time. It is unlikely you would see a full yield when a war head would go off. But more likely something like a fire could throw a plume of plutonium and uranium into the air.’
In September 1993, senior nuclear scientists at Aldermaston were struggling to contain a crisis.
Shavings of highly enriched uranium – one of the most dangerous substances known to mankind – had been discovered in an oil tank placed beneath a lathe.
The machinery had been used to cut the uranium into the correct shape so that it could fit in the core of a nuclear warhead. To their horror, the scientists quickly realised that one false move could trigger an atomic fission explosion leading to nuclear catastrophe.
Five Aldermaston incidents reported to the Office for Nuclear Responsibility in the past 12 months:
1: February 2021: During routine maintenance on a furnace, a stirrer started moving unexpectedly. An investigation found the direct cause of the incident was a faulty control panel ‘beyond its expected life service’.
2: December 2020: AWE P fined £660,000 after pleading guilty to a Health and Safety offence. A contractor narrowly avoided injury when a flash over of electricity occurred when he attempted to remove a flash guard in a fuse box, believing that the electricity had been isolated and disconnected, when in fact a live circuit was present. There was no radiological risk to workers or the public.
3: November 2020: Methyl Ethyl Ketone solvent leak sets off control room alarm. No injuries reported.
4: October 2020: Stack inspection strategy for decommissioning falls short of standards.
5: August 2020: Steam valve fails causing valve and insulation to be ejected prompting an on site emergency response.