Public inquiry into AWE safety extended by four days

The Boundary Hall planning inquiry into development in the emergency planning zone at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston is to be extended by four days to allow evidence into public safety to be fully examined.

Despite heavy pressure from local MPs and councils the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is opposing a new housing development close to AWE Aldermaston.

HSE is concerned that proposals by Cala Homes to build 115 houses and apartments on the Boundary Hall site, in Tadley, just 500 metres from the perimeter fence at AWE Aldermaston, would place members of the public at risk because of difficulties in arranging evacuation of residents and deployment of emergency services in the event of a nuclear accident at the AWE site.

In March 2010 the Government called in the housing proposals at HSE's request and a public inquiry, led by planning inspector Phillip Ware, is currently underway to investigate the risks of development at the site.

Russell Harris QC, representing the HSE, said the Atomic Weapons Establishment handled high explosives and radioactive substances, including plutonium, tritium and enriched uranium, and argued that population levels within the inner Detailed Emergency Planning Zone (DEPZ), the area within a 3km distance from the AWE, are already at maximum limits

“It is reasonably foreseeable that an accident could occur, giving rise to a dose of radiation,” he told the inquiry. A fire at the AWE could trigger an emergency and deliver a dose of radiation five times the annual dose limit for planned situations to the area within a 3km radius of AWE - rising to seven times the limit in calm weather.

He added that agencies involved in determining an emergency plan for incidents at AWE – including Hampshire Constabulary and West Berkshire Council – had objected to the development and that safety should be the main priority.

Robert Griffiths QC, on behalf of Cala Homes, said the plans offered “substantial benefits that outweigh the miniscule risk”. He argued that the development would only result in a population increase of 1.5 per cent in the DEPZ, but would bring substantial benefits to the community including affordable housing, community facilities, and a developer contribution of £503,211 which would be divided between West Berkshire Council and Hampshire County Council for local highways.

At the bidding of local councils MPs Richard Benyon, for Newbury, and Sir George Young, for North West Hampshire, have both written to the inspector in support of the housing proposals. Sir George said the site was “an eyesore,” and Mr Benyon said AWE was highly regulated with no nuclear reactor at the site.

HSE maintain that although the scheme would provide more affordable homes in Tadley, it would be “placing those in need potentially in harm’s way”.

The inquiry was originally scheduled to end on 18 October, but has now been extended for a further four days over the period 16 - 19 November to allow all the evidence to be heard.

Each party will call a number of witnesses during the inquiry before the inspector reports to Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, for a final decision. Proofs of evidence outlining the case given by each witness at the inquiry can be downloaded below.