Concerns raised over nuclear safety issues

November 25, 2015

ICAN partner organisation NFLA raises concerns over defence nuclear safety issues and nuclear weapon road convoys

At its recent meeting in Oxford, the Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) English Forum heard about increasing safety concerns within the defence nuclear sector. Sean Morris of NFLA said, “Such concerns alarm us as yesterday’s announcement of the Government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review said virtually nothing about improving defence nuclear safety. This is despite, and in the NFLA’s view mistakenly, pledging to spend an additional £6 billion on the Trident replacement programme than previously planned, and announcing new management arrangements to manage defence spending.”

The NFLA meeting heard from Peter Burt of Nuclear Information Service (NIS) that the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston in Berkshire was in ‘special regulatory measures’ from the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) for an unprecedented third year running. There has still been no significant improvement in its safety performance and no indication when it will return to ‘normal’ regulatory arrangements. The reasons for such measures to be put in place appear to be a combination of staffing issues, ageing facilities and an increase in new build activities in preparation for the replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons programme.

Specific incidents noted in recent years at Aldermaston include:
-  Extensive corrosion in Building A45, a uranium processing facilities which saw the facility closed for 2.5 years.
-  A failure by AWE to comply with instructions to treat 1000 drums of intermediate level radioactive waste, breaching health and safety law and requiring an improvement notice to be put in place until September 2016.
-  Defective fire alarms on parts of the site requiring an extensive improvement programme.
-  Delays now exist to a number of new build projects such as the new uranium processing facility due to replace Building A45; and major problems and delays with constructing a new warhead assembly / disassembly facility at the neighbouring Burghfield facility.

NFLA members present agreed that, along with the systemic weaknesses at Aldermaston, more protracted factors are also at play. These include the complexity of the Ministry of Defence’s nuclear operations, its inability to cope with such operations in comparison to the civil nuclear sector, a consortium running the site that is reminiscent of the body that has been stripped of the Sellafield contract, an unhealthy culture of secrecy and weak public scrutiny arrangements. “The Ministry of Defence is out of its depth operating a nuclear weapons programme”, concluded Peter Burt.

Members present called for:
-  The AWE management consortium to be stripped of its contract to run the Aldermaston and Burghfield facilities.
-  The Office for Nuclear Regulation to be given full, open and transparent control of the facilities, in place of the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator.
-  A more effective, independent and transparent Local Liaison Committee is required to scrutinise the work of the facilities.
-  A comparison of burgeoning costs for the Trident replacement programme with the deep cuts to local authority budgets and critical local emergency services.

Similar concerns were also raised about the safety of road convoys which take nuclear weapons from Aldermaston and Burghfield to Faslane and Coulport, where Trident submarines are based. Nigel Day of Nukewatch provided information on a long list of serious incidents affecting such convoys over the past decade and the alarming results of recent emergency planning exercises, which highlighted that it could take many hours for specialist staff to get to an accident involving a road convoy. With the huge cuts to budgets in local authority emergency planning units and across critical Council services, along with similar cuts within the emergency services, members raised the question if an adequate emergency response to a major incident affecting such a convoy could actually take place.

“Nuclear weapons convoys pass dangerously close to Oxford, and to so many towns & cities across the UK. If there was a road accident involving one of these convoys, a very severe release of radioactive materials is possible, which would render the local area uninhabitable” – Nigel Day, Nukewatch.

NFLA English Forum Chair Councillor David Blackburn said:
“I was greatly alarmed to hear of the increasing safety issues and problems that appear to be besetting the defence nuclear sector. The public is fully aware of concerns in the civil sector, particularly at Sellafield, and radical measures have been taken. It is clear to NFLA that similarly radical measures are required to reform and improve practices in the defence sector. With billions of pounds being planned for a Trident nuclear weapons programme, the question has to be asked as to whether the defence nuclear sector can be trusted to deliver such sensitive and dangerous nuclear safety practices? The money should rather be spent on making safe the crumbling facilities at the likes of Aldermaston and improving our emergency services and local authorities so that they can deal with any accident occurring at such sensitive facilities, or on our road network with a weapons convoy.”

Dr David Lowry, an independent expert on nuclear safety issues, warned that ”it’s not possible to protect against risk of terrorist attack on nuclear weapons convoys”.

Rebecca Sharkey, Coordinator of ICAN UK, spoke at the Oxford meeting of the growing international momentum to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons as part of the Humanitarian Initiative. 121 countries and counting have endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge, signalling their readiness to ‘fill the legal gap’ on nuclear weapons as an urgent humanitarian imperative. “Even if we never use them, having nuclear weapons puts us at risk of accident and self-inflicted disaster. Highlighting the risks and consequences of UK possession of nuclear weapons shows how these WMDs undermine not enhance security. We must scrap Trident and support a global ban on nuclear weapons before it’s too late”, she said.


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