The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has served a formal Improvement Notice on the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) following AWE's failure to meet a legal requirement to treat radioactive waste.
Already under regulatory 'special measures' for failing to improve safety performance at its Aldermaston site, AWE now faces further enforcement action after missing a deadline to treat 1000 drums of radioactive waste by reducing their volume and encapsulating the waste.
ONR said that AWE had failed to demonstrate that its long-term strategy for managing higher activity radioactive waste “reduces the future risk to the public and employees so far as reasonably practicable.”
The regulator is now targeting the whole of AWE's higher active radioactive waste programme and intends to take a “staged approach to enforcement” which aims to reduce the hazards posed by all higher activity wastes held at Aldermaston and improve their management over the long term.
AWE has been set a deadline to recommend options on how it will manage the waste to ONR by 30 September 2016.
Although ONR considers that the conditions under which the waste is currently stored are acceptable, the regulator believes that AWE has not met its legal obligation to reduce future risks over the expected storage life for radioactive waste at Aldermaston.
In March 2007 the former Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, which has since become ONR, issued a legally binding Licence Instrument to AWE requiring reduction in volume and encapsulation of 1000 drums of intermediate level radioactive waste by February 2014. The Licence Instrument aimed to ensure that hazardous untreated waste – known as 'higher activity waste' - which is too highly contaminated with radioactive material for disposal in existing facilities could be stored safely in a passive form over the long term.
Despite being given a seven year period to comply with the terms of the Licence Instrument, AWE failed to meet its requirements by the February 2014 deadline. Although conceding that “AWE has contravened the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974” by failing to manage its wastes in a manner that reduces future risks, ONR subsequently decided not to prosecute the company for breaking the law. Instead, a low-key announcement on the ONR website stated that instead of prosecuting the company for failing to meet its legal obligations, “a more proportionate and effective response” would be to “ensure the robustness of AWE’s long term strategy and enforcing its implementation”.
AWE must now demonstrate how it will manage its higher activity wastes “in a way that closes this compliance gap". Once the requirements of the Improvement Notice have been met ONR will continue to consider whether “further proportionate enforcement action” is needed to ensure that recommendations are implemented and “appropriate passivation” of the waste is achieved.
Both ONR and AWE recognise that meeting ONR's expectations regarding the long term requirements for managing higher active radioactive wastes at Aldermaston will require a number of new projects to be undertaken “over a sustained period”.