Government nuclear watchdog slammed over secrecy following failure to prosecute Atomic Weapons Establishment

Nuclear Awareness Group (NAG) has criticised the government's nuclear safety watchdog for refusing to explain why a Berkshire factory which manufactures the UK's nuclear weapons has not been prosecuted for treating its radioactive waste – despite having clearly broken the law.

In June NAG wrote to the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) – the government organisation responsible for controlling safety at nuclear sites – with a request under the Freedom of Information Act for a copy of the report into ONR's investigation into a failure by the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) to comply with a legally binding instruction to treat 1000 drums of radioactive waste, and an explanation of the decision not to prosecute AWE over the failure.

In response ONR has provided the group with a copy of 24 page investigation report – from which 16 pages have been completely blacked out to hide information which the regulator does not wish to release.  The censored section of the report includes all information relating to the decision not to prosecute (see photo).

A letter from Deputy Chief Inspector Richard Savage, ONR's Defence Programme Director, said that for a prosecution to proceed there must be “sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction” and that “prosecution would be in the public interest”. Mr Savage's letter states that: “Consideration of these factors led to the conclusion that prosecution should not be sought”, but provides no further justification for the decision.

NAG has now written to the regulator requesting a review of the case before launching a formal appeal to the Information Commissioner's Office.

Information in the uncensored portion of the ONR investigation report which has been provided to NAG paints a damning picture of AWE's attitude to radioactive waste management, revealing that over a twenty year period AWE has been set numerous deadlines to deal with the waste, but took a deliberate decision not to do so to avoid spending money.

AWE is currently storing 20,329 drums with a volume of 205 litres containing intermediate level radioactive waste.  In contrast to the lack of progress in treating waste, research work and development of new facilities needed to build new nuclear warheads has proceeded apace over the period since AWE was ordered to treat the waste.

Evelyn Parker of Nuclear Awareness Group said:  "There's no doubt that AWE have broken the law in failing to meet their obligations to treat radioactive waste, and it's ONR's job to hold them to account.

"Any member of the public who commits a criminal offence can expect to find themselves in court pretty quickly, but ONR have just shrugged their shoulders and let AWE off the hook because they are a big and powerful company.

"To make matters worse, ONR have not given any reasons for why they've decided not to prosecute AWE.  It's hard to avoid the conclusion that ONR are a weak, ineffective, and powerless regulator that can't be trusted to respect the interests of the community, and Nuclear Awareness Group will be continuing to pressure them until they up their game".