7pm Civic Centre, Reading


Speaker: Brett Dyson

Emergency Planning Office for Reading




Flooding at Burghfield

July's floods severely affected AWE Burghfield, flooding several buildings and the site's sewage treatment works. According to the Environment Agency's (EA) press release of 23rd July, AWE's sampling of the floodwater revealed no escape of radioactive materials. No mention was made of chemical contamination, although the Environmental Statement accompanying the Planning Application for a new Small Scale Component Manufacturing Facility specifies a number not only of chemicals found during sampling, both in soil and groundwater, but also of explosive residues in the drainage runs around one of the buildings due for demolition.

More Problems at Burghfield

The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) issues Quarterly Reports on its dealings with AWE. Our colleagues in the Southampton-based Nuclear Information Service, which monitors these reports, became highly concerned about a series of Quarterly Reports on progress at Burghfield during 2006/7, and published a report on its findings.

The problem relates to the so-called ‘Gravel Gertie' workshops where the delicate task of combining or disconnecting specialised high explosives and the warhead nuclear package takes place. This is a high-risk process is currently still being performed in 40-year old facilities which the NII have been asking to be replaced for several years. There are still no signs of significant progress, in fact NII appear to be having difficulty even getting improvements made in working practices in the existing facilities.

The Reading Post became interested, and sought the views of AWE and NII on the NIS report. AWE denied any compromise of safety standards, but admitted that the new facility is still at the plans stage. The NII said that they are pushing for upgrading of the old facilities, as a tide-over until a new modern-standards facility is brought into service.

This is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs, given that this work is so high-risk.

Storm Water at Aldermaston

AWE Aldermaston was also affected by "significant" storm water, but according to the EA statement, no facilities were flooded. The North Ponds holding tanks most definitely were flooded, as this photograph taken by one of our members shows. The North Ponds behind the fence on the left can be seen cascading over the tank and water flooding over the grass towards the Aldermaston stream on the right.


AWE Aldermaston's North Ponds waste water holding tanks August 2007

The overflow flooded the adjacent woodland outside the perimeter fence. Greenpeace were able to monitor some of this effluent, and reported that no radioactivity was found in their samples. The Environment Agency stated that there had been no breach of their radioactive discharge authorisation.

Nevertheless, because this is not the first time in recent years that high rainfall levels have caused problems at Aldermaston, NAG immediately put in requests to AWE and the MOD for information under the Freedom of Information Act, 2000. We asked for

  • Contingency plans, operating procedures or emergency arrangements for dealing with on-site flooding or high volumes of storm water runoff from AWE Aldermaston site
  • Any reports or documents which assess risks arising from flooding on the site, or off-site flooding caused by storm water runoff from the site.

We had hoped to be able to report on the results in this newsletter, but our request is so fraught with difficulty that it will be late September before we can expect an answer from the MOD. We have also had to query a response from AWE that not being a "public authority", they are not subject to the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act!

Radioactive Waste

CoRWM's advice to Government that local authorities should be offered a sweetener for agreeing to host a radioactive waste repository on their patch has produced an interesting spin-off. Local campaigners around Hinckley Point nuclear power station have told us about what is happening in their neck of the woods. The proposal there comes from Hinckley's operator, Magnox Electric, and is for a permanent Low Level radioactive waste storage facility at the site. Currently, Hinckley's LLW is sent to Drigg, which is expensive and no longer certain as storage space at Drigg fills up.

West Somerset Council have realised that things have moved on since the days when risks to the local community were not recognised, and that some compensation for risk is in order. Such compensation could take the form of a fund which could be used to deliver community development projects.

The communities of West Berkshire, Reading and North Hampshire have been living with the elements of risk arising from the proximity of AWE Aldermaston and Burghfield for over half a century, including the storage of radioactive waste on site at Aldermaston since 1982, without acknowledgment of risk let alone compensation. Now that a renewal programme is under way, is it not time the risks were acknowledged in our area?

Nuclear Convoys

Data released by the MOD recently shows that the nuclear warhead carriers have a poor mechanical record. Over the last seven years there have been fifty "engineering incidents" and seventeen "operational incidents". The operational incidents included delays caused by protests on the convoy routes between Burghfield and Scotland, and clashing dates of police exercises when they are needed along the convoy route. The engineering problems included mechanical faults, leaks of oil, petrol and hydraulic fluid, faulty temperature gauges, and - worryingly - a smoking fuse-box in a cab, a smoking axle on a steep descent, and a clutch failure.

These vehicles must do considerably less annual mileage than the average lorry - the 500 mile journey and return is undertaken only about four times a year. That means a very high failure rate indeed, adding accident-proneness to what is already a risky journey.

The convoys pass through the suburbs of West Reading and regularly takes the A34 round Oxford, to the dismay of Oxford Town Council, which has petitioned the MOD to avoid their city.

According to the Sunday Times on 9th September, the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, is concerned about these nuclear warhead carriers driving along Scottish roads. Although defence issues are reserved to Westminster, he hopes to seek a ban on the transportation of nuclear weapons on Scottish soil, citing European Commission regulations governing the protection of the environment. The Habitats Directive was recently used to ban ship-to-ship transfers of crude oil, on the grounds that any accident could have a catastrophic effect on the environment. A convoy accident involving a release of radiation would be even more catastrophic.

More Evidence of the Effects of Low-Level Radiation

One of the difficulties of studies of childhood leukaemia clusters around nuclear plants is the small number of the samples and incidents at each locality. An analysis has now been made of 17 previous studies from Europe, USA and Japan, to provide a larger sample base. The result is still that children under 9 stand a 21% - 24% higher risk of developing leukaemia if they live near a nuclear plant than if they don't - for reasons still to be established. Scotland, which has a high concentration of nuclear facilities, also has some of the highest childhood leukaemia rates. The study was published in the European Journal of Cancer Care.

The testing of Depleted Uranium armour-piercing shells has been taking place at a firing range at Dundrennan near Kirkcudbright for many years, most of the residue ending up in the Solway Firth. Dumfries and Galloway Health Board identified a localised childhood leukaemia cluster in 1993, and the local Green Party have been trying to wring statistics out of a reluctant NHS. The Scottish Cancer Registry has produced a study claiming to show that the risks are no higher near the sea than inland, but that is without taking Chernobyl effects into account. The cluster is not denied.

Sweden was one of the countries affected by fallout from Chernobyl. Mothers there received a maximum dose of around double background level. The key period of vulnerability to radiation-induced mental impairment (this phenomenon is well established at higher radiation doses) is thought to lie between 8 and 15 weeks after conception. A study which has been previewed in Chemistry World, September 2007, has found an association between academic performance and lower levels of radiation after studying 560,000 Swedish infants born between 1983 and 1988 (the Chernobyl disaster was 1986).

Meanwhile at Chernobyl, recent studies that appeared in the Royal Society's Journal, Biology Letters, have found that the effects of radiation in the exclusion zone are worse than previously assumed. The area is not a haven for wildlife - radiation is affecting the wildlife. Far from the exclusion zone becoming a thriving ecosystem with an increasing number of rare species, the species richness, abundance and population density of breeding birds has decreased by between 50% and 66%, according to the level of radiation. Birds which feed on insects at ground level were found to have been particularly affected. Studies are continuing in an attempt to establish whether this is because the insects are contaminated or because there are fewer insects for the birds to eat. (From BBC News)

Sale of BNFL's Stake in AWEML

In July the Government announced its intention to sell off BNFLs (State-owned British Nuclear Groups) one-third stake in AWEML. There followed parliamentary questions seeking assurances about the choice of purchaser. There appear to be several potential contenders - UKAEA are bidding, possibly in conjunction with an American group CH2M Hill. UKAEA is also State-owned but is earmarked for part privatisation. The other two stakeholders, SERCO and Lockheed Martin, have the right to buy out BNFL's stake pre-emptively and have declared an interest in doing so. However, the Government is thought to want to bring in fresh blood, so Amec and Bechtel remain possible bidders.

Stocking fillers

How nice that of all the corporate businesses which support the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, top of the list is AWE plc, closely followed by arms dealers BAE Systems.

At the NAG meeting in July, we agreed to approach AWE about NAG having a representative on the Local Liaison Committee. The Committee is being consulted, clearly a difficult decision.


Secretary & Newsletter Editor: Evelyn Parker

16 Back Street

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Winchester SO23 9SB

Tel:01962 890160