Nuclear weapons factory to stay under 'special measures' for third year running as watchdog reports decline in MoD nuclear safety performance

Safety

The factory where the UK's nuclear weapons are manufactured will require “an enhanced level of regulatory attention” for the third year running because of a failure to improve safety performance, says the government's nuclear safety regulator.

The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston is one of a number of Ministry of Defence (MoD) nuclear sites where safety performance is declining as a result of shortages of skilled personnel, ageing plant, and delays in building new facilities.

AWE Aldermaston and the Devonport naval base, where the Royal Navy's nuclear powered submarines are maintained and refitted, are both listed as safety priorities in an assessment published by the Office for Nuclear Regulator (ONR) as part of its Annual Report for 2014/15. The assessment identifies eight sites where ONR considers that additional 'special measures' are needed because of their radiological hazards and below par safety performance.

Aldermaston and Devonport were first placed under special measures by ONR in 2013.  At the time ONR stated that the sites were “expected to receive enhanced regulatory attention for around two years, as we anticipate the issues to be resolved during that time”.  However, performance at Aldermaston has remained level rather than improving, and ONR reports that it has declined at Devonport over the past year.  The two sites are now entering their third year under the enhanced inspection regime.

The ONR report reveals that overall safety performance at Ministry of Defence sites is showing a deteriorating trend.  Of six military nuclear sites listed, safety performance is declining at three sites (AWE Burghfield, Devonport dockyard, and the BAE Systems shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness) and remains level at two others (AWE Aldermaston and Rolls Royce Marine Power Operations at Derby).  Only at the Rosyth dockyard, where nuclear operations have been running down over a long-term period, have standards improved.

No ratings are given for the Ministry of Defence nuclear sites at HM Naval Base Clyde, where the UK's Trident nuclear weapons submarines are based, and the submarine reactor test site at HMS Vulcan, Dounreay, because ONR has no powers to regulate nuclear operations at these sites.  

ONR reports that the MoD's nuclear programme “faces a number of challenges, including shortages of suitably qualified and experienced personnel, ageing facilities and significant commitments to build new
nuclear facilities”.  Although the regulator says that safety within the programme is currently “being maintained”, the challenges “have the potential to affect longer-term delivery”.

The Aldermaston nuclear weapons factory remains under special measures because of delays in major new build projects, the need to extend the life of ageing key facilities, and delays in undertaking safety reviews.  ONR is considering “further proportionate regulatory action” against AWE following a failure to meet a legal obligation to treat radioactive wastes by February 2014.

Although a second AWE site at Burghfield site has been assessed as requiring a 'routine' level of regulatory attention, performance at Burghfield was judged to have declined over the year.  ONR expresses concern that “deteriorating programme performance has resulted in delays to new build assembly/disassembly facilities which has led to the need for extended use of current ageing facilities”.

Devonport Royal Dockyard Ltd continues to receive enhanced regulatory attention as performance is declining at the site. In December 2014, ONR issued a formal Improvement Notice for the site after a worker received an internal dose of radiation.  Resources at Devonport are said to be “stretched”, partly as a result of MoD's decision to undertake an unscheduled second refuelling for Trident submarine HMS Vanguard when it enters refit at Devonport later this year.  The ONR report warns that improvements at Devonport are likely to require “sustained commitment over the next three to five years” before the site can move to a “routine attention position”.

At Barrow, where new submarines are built, operating licence compliance arrangements “remain in need of improvement”.  In December 2014 ONR issued an Improvement Notice over concerns about suitable qualifications and experience for staff undertaking safety related work at Barrow.

The Rolls-Royce site at Derby, which manufactures fuel for nuclear powered submarines, is undergoing a “challenging period”, with work being undertaken in “a number of ageing facilities” whilst a new build programme is underway at the site.

Overall the number of nuclear sites requiring an 'enhanced level of regulatory attention' from ONR has increased steadily over the past three years, rising from four in 2013 to six last year and seven in 2015 – five civil nuclear sites and two military sites.  Decommissioning work at the Sellafield nuclear site will require a 'significantly enhanced level of regulatory attention', reflecting ONR's top nuclear safety priority.

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