Regulator lets Atomic Weapons Establishment off the hook over failure to treat radioactive waste

Nuclear Awareness Group has written to the government's nuclear safety regulator to ask why the  Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) will not be prosecuted for failing to treat radioactive waste stocks which have accumulated at its Aldermaston site – even though the company defied a legally binding instruction by missing a deadline to deal with the waste.

The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), the government regulator responsible for safety in the nuclear industry, has concluded that the current conditions under which radioactive waste is stored at the nuclear weapons factory “are acceptable and do not give rise to significant risk to the public or the workforce”, and so a prosecution is not necessary.  

In 2007 ONR issued a formal Licence Instrument instructing AWE to reduce reduce in volume and encapsulate 1,000 drums of intermediate level radioactive waste which have accumulated at Aldermaston.  ONR wrote to AWE in June 2010 expressing concern about slow progress in dealing with the waste but in August 2011 the company told ONR that it would not be able to comply with the requirement by the February 2014 deadline which had been set for completing the task.  

The Licence Instrument expired on 20 February 2014 with AWE in breach of its requirements.  Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that initial proposals to compact the waste drums were rejected by AWE as being too expensive.  

A low-key announcement on the ONR website stated that instead of prosecuting the company for failing to meet its legal obligations, “a more proportionate and effective response” would be to “ensure the robustness of AWE’s long term strategy and enforcing its implementation”.

ONR has not ruled out further enforcement action against AWE and “will now consider what action is needed to achieve the hazard reduction specified by the Licence Instrument in reasonably practicable timescales”.

Nuclear Awareness Group is not satisfied by these vague arrangements and is writing to ONR to ask for a detailed justification of the decision not to prosecute AWE, and clarification of what exactly ONR intends to do to hold the company to account.

Evelyn Parker of the Nuclear Awareness Group said:

“A local resident who was ordered by the Council to clear up dangerous rubbish which they had dumped in their garden would certainly receive a summons to appear in court if they missed the deadline to tidy up the mess, and the court would give short shrift to any excuse that it would cost too much to complete the job”

“Yet the Office for Regulation has let the Atomic Weapons Establishment off the hook for a far more serious offence, even though the company was given seven years to bring its radioactive waste under control, ignored a formal warning that work was proceeding too slowly, and ultimately put savings before safety.

“This raises big questions about ONR's effectiveness as a safety watchdog.  AWE is able to thumb its nose at legal requirements imposed by ONR because the regulator is too timid to take meaningful action against them.  

“Any watchdog which backs down from taking enforcement action when its own instructions are ignored has zero credibility.  Local residents expect government regulators to take firm action when big companies break the law, and by rolling over and letting AWE beat the rap ONR has scored an epic fail”.