Safety and flood fears raise concerns over Burghfield nuclear plans

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Ministry of Defence proposals to build a new nuclear weapons factory just outside Reading highlight concerns about the safety of the population around nuclear sites and would breach government guidelines on development in flood risk zones, according to NAG.

West Berkshire Council decided in early March to grant planning permission to the Ministry of Defence for construction of a new ‘main process facility’ at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire, despite fierce local opposition to the proposal.

 

The Nuclear Awareness Group believes that the Burghfield site is not suitable for the new weapons factory as it is within a flood risk zone and is close to the densely populated Reading urban area. The group has prepared a technical report to present its arguments to West Berkshire Council (download from this page), which shows that:

  • The site is in a flood risk area which, according to government policy on development and flooding, should not be developed for land uses involving hazardous substances.
  • Computer modelling of flooding at the site has failed to use the most up-to-date estimates of the impacts of climate change, which are more serious than those used in design of the new facility.
  • The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has already expressed concern that the population around the site is dangerously close to safe limits. If the development is given the go-ahead, major new developments in South Reading could face a long-term veto from HSE.
  • The Ministry of Defence has refused to release any information about the risks the new factory would pose to the public and the environment, leaving local people in the dark about how much of a threat the nuclear operations conducted there would pose to their way of life.

 

Nearly 1000 objections to the controversial planning application were received by West Berkshire Council.

 

In 2002 AWE announced that it intended to close down the ageing AWE Burghfield plant, yet documents submitted with the planning application now claim that it is the only possible location for the new warhead assembly plant.

 

AWE Burghfield is just six kilometres from the centre of Reading and over 200,000 people live within a five mile radius of the site, raising significant questions about public safety. The new main process facility would conduct the most hazardous operation during the manufacture of nuclear weapons – the attachment of high explosives to the plutonium core during assembly, and the removal of explosives during disassembly and maintenance of warheads.

 

Flooding at the site has caused a number of problems over recent years and is predicted to get worse in years ahead as a result of climate change. A recent Channel 4 News programme revealed that serious flooding at AWE Burghfield in July 2007 resulted in production work being suspended for nine months.

 

NAG believes that the decision on whether to grant planning permission for the new warhead facility should be made at a public inquiry, where the technical evidence for and against building it at Burghfield can be examined in detail, and Reading MPs Rob Wilson and Martin Salter have written to Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, supporting this view.

 

NAG spokesperson Peter Burt said: “No commercial developer would ever be allowed to build a factory which handles explosives, radioactive materials, and hazardous chemicals in a flood risk zone, especially at a site on the outskirts of one of the biggest urban areas in the South of England.

 

“In 2002 local people were promised that the AWE Burghfield site would be closed down and cleaned up, but now it looks like that promise is to be broken. Nobody from AWE has explained why a site that until recently was to be shut down has, despite all its shortfalls, suddenly become the only possible location where this new nuclear weapon factory can be built.

 

“The Ministry of Defence have refused to release any information about the threats the new nuclear factory would pose to local people and the environment, and expect us to give the nod to their plans without any understanding of the risks we would be forced to accept. This is just not acceptable in a modern democracy.”