In October 2014 NAG celebrated its twentieth anniversary, and to mark the event we held a special public meeting at Friends Meeting House in Reading. Long-standing NAG member Evelyn Parker gave an account of NAG's history and campaign work on the Atomic Weapons Establishment over the years, which we have published below as a reminder of our achievements. Our photo shows the Mayor of Reading, Tony Jones, and Green Party councillor Rob White at the meeting together with NAG members.
Aldermaston became the UK's nuclear warhead manufacturing facility in 1952. It did not appear on maps until the advent of Google maps forced it to.
In 1963 above-ground nuclear testing was stopped because of environmental and health concerns. By the 1970's AWE's safety officer was reporting poor health and safety practices …...– he got early retirement. The Pochin report of 1978 also found deficiencies.
In 1985 concern arose about the number of cases of childhood leukaemia being treated at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading. Yorkshire TV did a programme on this, and COMARE was called in to investigate whether there might be any connection with AWE's discharges. It reported in 1989, finding no connection – as it had in its earlier reports on childhood leukaemia clusters around Sellafield and Dounreay.
In 1993 the MOD began to offer compensation for claims of work-related cancer. The same year Greenpeace published a highly critical report that Pochin's recommendations had not been fully met. This resulted in Reading BC deciding to set up a community Inquiry with specific concerns:
- any serious incident at Aldermaston or Burghfield could affect Reading
- contamination of rivers
- the alleged childhood leukaemia cluster
- welfare of the workforce
- transportation through Reading of radioactive material
The community Inquiry (March 1994) resulted in a demand for a full Public Inquiry. That didn't happen, but NAG did. And quickly found itself up against the shroud of secrecy over all things Defence and Nuclear.
Some highlights from the last 20 years:
1995: AWE was privatised – Hunting Brae took over the management.
Greenpeace exposed the Pangbourne pipeline by blocking it.
NAG released 500 balloons to show how far airborne discharges from Aldermaston could travel. The furthest went 25 miles.
1996: Hunting Brae start a survey of contamination of the Aldermaston site, chemical and radioactive, leading to a major clean-up operation.
NAG helps host a public meeting on health issues in Tadley.
1997: The proposals for the NIREX radwaste burial facility near Sellafield are scuppered. AWE has been accumulating its wate since 1982 and now has to face its storage problem on a long-term basis. NAG gets the issue raised in Parliament.
NAG objects to proposed housing development in Grazeley.
AWEs new site licence brings it under civil not military regulation under the NII and the EA.
1998: AWE start clean-up, install North Ponds waste water holding tanks and are fined over worker contamination with Plutonium.
NAG hosts a day conference on radioactive waste.
Environment Agency consult the public over proposed changes to discharge authorisations. They have to consider how AWE will be able to decommission its old contaminated buildings. NAG participates and warns of the inadequacy of risk modelling, and wants a health audit.
1999: AWE fined for unauthorised discharge of Tritium into Aldermaston Stream. Warhead production is made to halt for 6 months to enable AWE to concentrate on dealing with radwaste storage.
NAG publishes its case for the need for a Public Inquiry into AWE's environmental and health impact.
NAG starts a letter and card-sending campaign to the EA over discharge authorisations (they got 2549 postcards, 445 letters and 50 emails)
2000: NAG hosts the annual national Low Level Radiation conference for a weekend in Reading, and registers as a Limited Company.
AWE gets a new management contractor – AWEML, consisting of American Lockheed Martin, Serco and BNFL. EA's new discharge authorisations come into force, and NAG applies for a Judicial Review.
MOD start consulting about where to store radioactive waste from decommissioned nuclear submarines
2001: EA argues, and the judge agrees, that the Euratom treaty over discharges only applies to civil, not military, radiation. NAG loses its Judicial Review and is given leave to appeal. NAG loses its appeal but this is later granted and co-litigant Reading resident appeals to the House of Lords.
2002: AWE start work on an evaporator to replace the Pangbourne pipeline, and publishes its plans for taking on the whole process of testing as well as manufacturing, maintaining and decommissioning the UK's nuclear warheads. This includes a laser lab, a hydrodynamics facility and posh new offices.
Southampton University do a soil survey around Aldermaston for plutonium and uranium. They find little more than the consequences of 1960's nuclear testing, but a few hotspots especially in woodland around Burghfield Common and Mortimer West End.
End of the line on Court appeals – the House of Lords was not prepared to give leave to appeal to the European Court of Justice.
West Berkshire Council takes over control of off-site emergency planning.
2003: AWE come and speak to NAG! It revises its locally-distributed leaflet telling people what to do in the event of an emergency at AWE.
AWEML's 10 year contract is extended by 15 years.
The European Commission on Radiation Risk (ECRR) finds that radiation from nuclear testing has done more harm than previously thought.
The European Commission takes the MOD to Court over discharges from Devonport potentially affecting other EU countries. Devonport is a military site. Aldermaston?
CoRWM established to suggest ways forward with the UK nuclear waste legacy problem.
2004: AWE are finding it tricky to find ways of clearing up the contamination of the site.
Google maps put AWE on the map.
2005: The Pangbourne pipeline is closed down but left in situ. AWE wonder what to do with it – and still do.
EA block a housing development at Paices Hill because of suspected contamination of soil.
West Berkshire Council gives planning consent for the Orion nuclear test laser
The Govt sets up the NDA – Drigg is filling up.
2006: AWE bring in new bye-laws to inhibit protest, later only upheld to forbid camping.
Planning permission granted for new office block
CoRWM recommends geological storage, above-ground on-site until that is ready. Sweeteners to LA's that offer to host a depository. Problem still ongoing.
EA reduces discharge-to-air authorisation for AWE.
The Government starts thinking about replacing Trident.
2007: Heavy rain in July. Burghfield is seriously flooded (we find out much later how serious)
Aldermaston's radwater storage tanks overflow.
NII get shirty with AWE over lack of progress on waste treatment, give them a 6-year deadline. Problem continues.
More newbuild planning applications passed. NAG protests.
Health – the German Kikk study reveals a childhood leukaemia cluster around Krummel. The HPA double the cancer risk factor for tritium.
2008: Burghfield – EA ask for a proper flood defence before the gravel gerties are replaced (warhead dismantling area) and NII ration the dismantling that can take place for reasons of safety.
A second US firm (Jacobs) replaces BNFL on the consortium – AWE is now two thirds US owned.
Drigg is allowed to expand – Copeland Council get £10 million plus £1.5 million pa for agreeing to this. Drigg village (pop 300) gets £50k pa. No other Councils have come forward for a depository.
2009: planning applications for gravel gertie replacement and housing development at Boundary Hall Tadley, to which HSE object because it is within the emergency planning zone.
NAG's NII speakers were joined uninvited by a rep from MoD (Alan Farmer from DNSR) – inhibiting real dialogue – a minder?
NAG had to complain to ombudsman about the way the gravel gertie replacement and other new facility applications were handled – exemptions claimed by AWE meant a dearth of environmental impact information.
FOI requests reveal the seriousness of the 2007 floods at Burghfield and also that in 2002 AWE were considering moving Burghfield to Aldermaston but decided against because of the public interest that would ensue.
2010: A fire broke out in the explosives area at Aldermaston, serious enough for fire crews having to be brought in from outside.
A number of new facilities were applied for at both sites, enough to make us wonder whether they were just, as claimed, needed for maintenance purposes. Several are related to performing nuclear testing by simulation. All were passed on the nod despite shortage of environmental impact information.
2011: NAG first monitored an emergency planning exercise – nothing visible happened, it was just a desk-top exercise. Local schools and halls designated for taking in evacuees knew nothing about it.
We learn that DECC spends 50% of its budget on clear-up of radioactive waste, ie for the electricity we used in the 1950s onwards.
MoD publishes its strategy for dealing with radioactive waste.
HSE are overruled over Boundary Hall.
2012: The size of the evacuation zone in the event of an emergency is criticised by NAG speaker John Large.
AWE revises its emergency plan following the fire but wants to reduce rather than increase, the size of the area where the public would be affected.
2013: AWE fined over the fire – it was due to incompetence.
NII find corrosion in steel pillars in a facility where plutonium is handled.
Emergency planning – a for-real exercise in Scotland is a fiasco, NAG holds a demo outside West Berkshire Council offices demanding the AWE emergency plan be tested properly – it has only ever been tested by desk-top exercises. HSE and ONR are downgraded to having only advisory status over planning applications
A US/French study reports that “Background” radiation is really residue from nuclear weapons testing.
2014: ONR put AWE on “special measures” for regulatory supervision.
Waste – public to have a say about what to do with the radioactive waste arising from decommissioned nuclear submarines, which may be stored at AWE.