Regulators raise concerns over safety incident and tritium leak at Atomic Weapons Establishment

The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) “is a safe place, but could be a lot safer”, according to Iain Coucher, the new chief executive of the Establishment.  Mr Coucher made the comment at a recent meeting of the AWE local liaison committee where it was reported that regulators have censured AWE in relation to two separate incidents.

The liaison committee was told that the Environment Agency (EA) has judged AWE to be formally non-compliant in relation to an incident in August 2015 where levels of tritium in a water container were found to be double their notification levels. Separately, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) sent a formal enforcement letter to AWE in relation to an October 2015 incident in which an employee received an electric shock.

The tritium incident was first detected when levels in the North Ponds waste water holding area were found to be 60 Bq/l, twice the level at which AWE is obliged to notify the EA. Water is held in the pond for testing before it is discharged into the Aldermaston Stream.

An internal AWE investigation concluded that the tritium originated in “material which was defective on delivery to site”. The Environmental Agency’s brief description of the incident does not identify the defective material. The report does not provide details about remedial actions but says similar events will be prevented by improvements to “procedures, storage, ventilation and awareness.”

Details are similarly sparse about the electric shock incident. The enforcement letter followed a formal ONR investigation in February after an AWE employee received an electric shock  ONR considered that, as AWE was taking action to prevent any possible reoccurrence, it was not deemed necessary to issue a formal Improvement Notice to the company. As well as nuclear safety, the ONR is responsible for all Health and Safety matters at the sites which it oversees.

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