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AWE in safety row with regulators

The Newbury Weekly News reports:

THE ATOMIC Weapons Establishment (AWE) has hit back at critics of its recent safety record, despite a report published this week by a government nuclear safety watchdog which identified the facility as requiring “enhanced regulatory attention.”

The Office for Nuclear Regulation’s (ONR), report published on Tuesday (Nov 5) lists several UK nuclear sites requiring ”an enhanced level of regulatory attention” including AWE Aldermaston and Burghfield, where the UK’s nuclear weapons are manufactured and maintained.

Peter Burt, director of the Reading-based Nuclear Information Service, said the ONR had identified the AWE sites as priority 2 sites, expected to require enhanced regulatory attention for the next two years.

“The regulator has placed AWE on its priority list because of its “high hazard operations and aging facilities” and because there have been “issues on timeliness / quality” during recent safety reviews involving the company,” said Mr Burt.

The ONR’s agreement would be required, he said, before key steps in AWE’s on-going construction programme could go ahead, while the ONR annual report indicated that AWE’s safety performance had remained level, rather than improved, over the last year.

“The report reveals that the most serious safety problem at any nuclear site in the last three years occurred at AWE Aldermaston in 2012. The discovery of corrosion in structural steelwork resulted in the closure of the secret A45 building which makes enriched uranium components for nuclear warheads and fuel for nuclear submarines,” said Mr Burt.

AWE issued a statement on Tuesday (Nov 5) welcoming the ONR report which it said aimed for greater openness and transparency around the safety and security of the UK’s nuclear operations, while pointing out the report was clear that AWE’s Aldermaston and Burghfield sites met the required safety standards.

“Planning, design, construction and commissioning is being undertaken within one of the most demanding regulatory, technical and security environments. Given the complexity and uniqueness of some of the challenges associated with this programme, the CNI report rating (Priority 2) reflects the current inspection regime state at AWE and is appropriate,” the statement continued.

It emerged in October (2013) that in August, AWE Aldermaston received a formal warning letter and enforcement notice from the Environment Agency (EA), after increases in the radioactive substance, tritium, were found in Aldermaston Stream, detected in the North Ponds drainage system.

Earlier this year (2013), in May, AWE Aldermaston was ordered to pay more than £200,000 for significant safety failings relating to its use and control of explosive materials. This followed a 2010 fire in which an AWE worker burnt his arm and face, after a fire broke out in an explosives processing building and subsequent investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).