next meeting


TUESDAY 16th December 2008


7pm AGM – Hot fruit punch & mince pies

7.30 - Safety at AWE


Civic Centre Reading


Nuclear Safety at AWE

A talk on safety and regulation


David Senior

HM Superintending Inspector (Nuclear Installations)





We are indebted to the Nuclear Information Service for digging out, by patient research of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, a fuller picture of what really happened in July of last year at AWE Burghfield. We were aware that the flooding had been serious, and have reported on this in past newsletters, but what is now revealed is far worse than the public have been led to believe.

By mid-afternoon on Friday July 20th, 2007, flood water had reached the warhead assembly area and the explosives handling area. Water levels had reached over two ft, completely marooning one facility. The power supply, including the supply to the warhead assembly area and eventually to the whole site, had to be switched off. The criticality alarm system then became dysfunctional (and remained so for two weeks). By sheer good luck, it was Friday afternoon, and radioactive materials which could have reached criticality on contact with water had been stored away for the weekend. It was that close, and no functioning alarm. It must have been a terrifying ordeal for the workers still on site.

It took two weeks to recover radioactive materials from flooded buildings. A lot of documents were lost.

The 2007 episode was not the first one of flooding at Burghfield. The site was known to be flood-prone, yet AWE still has not put flood management measures in place. It has chosen to put their resources into new office accommodation, a restaurant and fancy equipment ahead of the safety of their workers and the public.

The response of AWE Management to the flooding was to keep as low a profile as possible. A site emergency was not declared. The Government Regulators responsible were not alerted until after the weekend. West Berks. Council Emergency team were not disturbed from their weekend rest (nor were they included in the Learning the Lessons exercise afterwards). The Local Liaison Committee was not told the scale of the problem (and didn't ask). The public were not offered any information.

Since the floods, West Berks Planning Committee has granted planning permission for a new manufacturing facility at AWE Burghfield. NAG responded to this application drawing the Committee's attention to the need for flood prevention measures to be in place before any new build was authorised. Perhaps the Committee would not have ignored us if what is known now had been known then.

AWE's internal review ("Review, Learn and Improve Assessment", November 2007) obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, (with heavy crossings-out), reveals that risk assessments for both the Aldermaston and Burghfield sites had overlooked flooding as a threat, although there had been previous incidents at both sites.

It is difficult for NAG to agree with AWE's conclusion that "at no point during the flood and its aftermath was there any threat to the nuclear safety at Aldermaston or Burghfield". We were all lucky this time that it was a Friday afternoon.

Liberal Democrat shadow defence Secretary Nick Harvey has commented "This is just not good enough. Nuclear weapons sites should be capable of withstanding attacks by enemies and terrorists, but these seem to have been unable to resist the rain". Quite.

What hope for a radioactive waste depository which would need to store waste safely for millennia if safety is regarded as such a low priority?



We were pleased to welcome Carolyn Murison, Principle Civil Contingencies Officer for West Berks Council, to our July meeting. She was accompanied by Paul Hendry, countryside Officer, and the Emergency Planning Officers for Reading Borough Council and Wokingham DC, Brett Dyson and Dean Truss. Stuart Parr from the Environment Agency also attended.

We heard that the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, putting the onus on Local Authorities, had greatly improved procedures. These are the same whether the emergency is flooding, an overturned lorry on the M4 or a plume of plutonium heading downwind from AWE. A number of responders - Local Authorities, police, fire, ambulance, Environment Agency, utilities will be alerted and a strategic command set up involving the appropriate agencies, under the command of the police (at least Asst Chief Constable level). A tactical command group and support group will also be established forthwith.

In the case of the AWE Offsite plan, the alert would also be put out to householders within 3 km of Aldermaston or 1.5 km of Burghfield, to stay indoors and close all windows and doors, stay tuned in to local radio. Children would be kept at school. Local state schools as far as Reading have been briefed to create their own preparations, eg to know how to switch off the air conditioning so that contaminated air is not sucked in, and how to keep anxious parents informed.

The Plan is undoubtedly impressive, there are regular exercises to winkle out deficiencies, and updates. Keeping media and public informed is prioritised. BUT - how well can it really work when the emergency consists of a plume of plutonium travelling with the wind? The Command team is expected to have a good idea of what's happening within a quarter of an hour. With average wind conditions, the plume would be past the local zone by the time householders have been told to stay indoors! The speed of the system, however good it is, cannot keep up with the wind. It's the people further downwind who would benefit from staying indoors. It was therefore surprising that the processes for quarantining and decontamination are still being worked on.

A nuclear emergency could also occur further afield with a warhead or materials convoy - this situation would be dealt with by the MOD, using the emergency supplies which travel with (traffic etc permitting!) the convoy. The public would be handled as for any airborne hazard - told to stay indoors.

May none of this ever happen in reality. The published West Berks Emergency Plan is now four years old, but a revised 2008 version is promised by the end of this year:





West Berks. Planning Committee gave approval in August for a new facility at Burghfield for Conventional Manufacturing Rationalisation. NAG had written in expressing concern that planning applications from AWE now routinely carry Government Exemption Directions, so that neither the Committee nor the public have knowledge of the potential environmental impact of the proposals. This nullifies the cessation of Crown Immunity, which we had hoped might lead to greater openness.

We also raised the flooding issue - the new facility would involve concreting over nearly a hectare of land.

Part of the reason we have such difficulty with persuading the Planning Committee to question AWE applications is that obstruction by the Committee would trigger a Public Inquiry, the cost of which would be borne by local council tax payers. So the Committee continues passing applications on the nod - without any idea of the possible safety implications for those local council tax payers.

The planning application we are most concerned about - the one for replacing the Assembly/Disassembly facility at Burghfield which has been such a headache for the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) for such a long time, has been delayed yet again and is not now expected before the end of the year.



According to the "New Scientist" of June 2008, a recently declassified UK Ministry of Defence safety manual stipulates that warheads should be capable of resisting multiple simultaneous impacts without detonating the plutonium core. In practice they are designed to be "single point safe". The manual argues that this might not be enough to safeguard against "popcorning" - the quaint expression used for the effect of multiple sequential explosion of warheads. The manual warns of the potentially dire effect in terms of radiation dose. The MoD do not now regard this as a credible scenario because of the precautions taken in handling, storage and transportation, but this is in mitigation only. It does not allow for human error.



What Hope of a Change?

The British Nuclear Energy Society, together with the Institute of Nuclear Engineers, are planning a 3-day conference in Birmingham next February - to discuss maintaining confidence in protection from artificial sources of radiation. The problem they foresee is that key new recommendations from ICRP on a system for radiological protection will impact on Euratom's Basic Safety Standards, on guidance from the IAEA, and ultimately on regulatory systems worldwide. They anticipate that this might have implications for the development of nuclear power - presumably adverse ones, else it wouldn't need discussing. Dare we hope for a change in the attitude to radioactive pollution, whether for profit or for defence?



It was disconcerting to hear on BBC news of the series of leaks which have occurred at French nuclear power plants over the past few months:

  • 97 staff at the Tricastin plant near Avignon were exposed to low levels of radiation when particles escaped from a pipe during maintenance work.
  • This followed an earlier leak of uranium at the same plant
  • In July a ban on fishing and water sports had to be imposed on the Rhone and another local river because of a leak of uranium from a broken underground pipe into groundwater.
  • The same day, at another plant in SE France, 15 EDF workers were exposed to traces of radiation

Perhaps we should be thankful that EDF have backed out of the deal on UK nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, 235 tons of radioactive waste is being taken by train from the defunct plant at Caorso, Italy, to the reprocessing plant at Cap de la Hague, on the Normandy coast. Cap de la Hague has its own history of radioactive discharges to air and to La Manche - the English Channel.



Stop Press

Two workers were exposed to excess radiation after equipment failure at the Faslane nuclear submarine base on the Clyde earlier this month, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has confirmed. The workers had to shut the doors on a radiation source by hand after a jammed wire prevented the usual closing mechanism from operating. The source was being used to x-ray pipes for flaws.

Sunday Herald 19th Oct 2008

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