The Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) raises today its ongoing and real concerns with safety at the UK’s military nuclear sites, including Devonport Dockyard, where Trident submarines undergo refit, and the Atomic Weapons Establishment, where the UK’s nuclear weapons are made. The Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have recently highlighted serious safety issues in the defence nuclear sector. As such, NFLA therefore calls on the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) to work with the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator to push for significant improvements in the sector.
In its alarming report, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) concluded that the infrastructure supporting the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine fleet, which hosts the Trident nuclear weapons programme, is ‘not fit for purpose’. It goes on to say significant delays to maintenance at 13 Ministry of Defence (MoD) nuclear sites has created a ‘ticking time bomb’ putting nuclear safety and the wider defence nuclear programme under threat. (1)
The Committee has previously warned about a £2.9billion ‘affordability gap’ for Ministry of Defence nuclear programmes, and particularly that of replacing the Trident weapons programme. Its latest report now notes that there is likely to be a shortage of space at the Devonport and Rosyth dockyards due to delays in dismantling and removing older redundant submarines.
NFLA notes comments made on the PAC report by Kate Hudson, General Secretary of CND, who said: “It’s clear that the MoD is overreaching itself financially: it clearly cannot afford to buy a new nuclear weapons system and maintain its other spending requirements. Spending on Trident replacement when it cannot afford general equipment is grossly irresponsible. Even worse are the health and safety risks presented by years of MoD inactivity. There is a backlog of submarines waiting to be dismantled, some of which contain nuclear fuel waste that will be radioactive for thousands of years.” (2)
This follows on from the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) last month requiring immediate safety changes to be made at the UK’s nuclear warhead assembly facility at Burghfield in West Berkshire. As the Nuclear Information Service (NIS) comment, the ONR has also intimated that, even with the changes, operations at the site can only continue for a limited period of time. If sufficient progress is not made on reducing risk at the facility ONR have said that operations may need to stop altogether.
The UK’s nuclear warheads are assembled in the Assembly Technology Centre at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), Burghfield, using components manufactured at nearby AWE Aldermaston. The work is carried out in buildings known as ‘Gravel Gerties’ which are designed to collapse inwards and trap radioactive material if there is a partial explosion during the assembly process. These facilities are thought to have been built in the 1950s. In May the National Audit Office revealed that a replacement building for this project is six years late and is expected to cost £1.8 billion, an increase of 146% over the original budget approved for the project in 2011.
NFLA note that the Aldermaston and Burghfield facilities have been in ‘special regulatory measures’ for 6 years now at Aldermaston and 3 years at Burghfield. ONR have been forced to use enforcement action 5 times at AWE since 2016 over safety documentation problems, though ONR says these particular safety issues have now been satisfactorily closed. ONR has cited the continued use of aging facilities, delays in undertaking periodic reviews of safety, use of ageing production facilities and the fact that AWE is behind schedule in building new facilities and implementing upgrades when justifying the decision to keep AWE in ‘Special Measures’. (3)
NFLA believes the quantity of evidence clearly indicates the Ministry of Defence and the AWE facilities are struggling to provide adequate nuclear safety at its sites, and as a result it may not be capable of delivering the Trident nuclear weapons programme without large levels of new investment the department is struggling to procure from the Treasury. At the upcoming meeting of the ONR NGO Forum, the NFLA and other groups will raise their concerns with the nuclear regulator and seek clarification from it on how it sees the way forward for improving safety at defence nuclear sites.
NFLA Chair, Councillor Ernie Galsworthy said:
“The Public Accounts Committee report confirms what many other agencies are also saying – that defence nuclear programmes appear to be in a state of crisis with crumbling facilities, an aging workforce, specialist staff shortages and endemic funding and practical problems in delivering the Trident nuclear weapons programme. I am pleased the Office for Nuclear Regulation is keeping the Atomic Weapons Establishment under close regulatory control as this seems absolutely necessary. Being under special measures for 3 and 6 years at Burghfield and Aldermaston respectively indicates the defence sector is unable to sort itself out. As a result, it is now high time for the UK Government to cancel the Trident replacement programme and rather sign the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, getting fully behind multilateral nuclear disarmament instead.”
Ends – for more information please contact Sean Morris, NFLA Secretary, on 0161 234 3244.
Notes for editors:
(1) Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, ‘Ministry of Defence nuclear programme’, 21st September 2018
(2) Quoted in The Ecologist, 25th September 2018
(3) Nuclear Information Service, 6th August 2018