The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has accused UK defence chiefs of breaching Health and Safety legislation by failing to protect the public from the risk of radioactive waste at one of its atomic weapons bases.
An official Improvement Notice has been served on the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston in Berkshire after the watchdog said the site operators, a consortium of private companies including Serco, were breaking the law.
The ONR said that while it is satisfied there is no immediate “significant risk” to the public, the AWE has contravened strict Health and Safety laws for failing to plan a long-term strategy for the management of “higher active radioactive waste” at the site.
The crackdown follows the failure of operators to reduce 1,000 drums of radioactive waste by February 2014. However, the ONR has provided Aldermaston with a further 14 months to show how it plans to take action to resolve the future risk.
The Ministry of Defence (MOD) owns the AWE sites and facilities although the day-to-day management, operations and the maintenance of Britain’s nuclear stockpile were handed to a consortium of three private sector firms – Jacobs Engineering Group, Lockheed Martin Corporation and Serco Group.
The consortium is responsible for employing the workforce as well as maintaining the nuclear site operating licences and discharge authorisations.
The MOD maintains a special share in AWE plc giving it authority to retain control over the company and the company’s asset and is supposed to monitor operations, performance and programme delivery “with the objective of maintaining high safety and security standards at all times”.
An ONR statement confirmed: “This enforcement action relates to the long-term management of Higher Active radioactive Waste. ONR is satisfied that the current conditions under which the waste is stored are acceptable and do not give rise to significant risk to the public or the workforce.
“However, ONR considers that AWE has contravened the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 by failing to demonstrate that its long-term strategy for managing Higher Active radioactive Waste reduces the future risk to the public and employees so far as reasonably practicable throughout the anticipated storage life of the waste at Aldermaston.
“The Improvement Notice requires AWE to recommend options to ONR by 30 September 2016 for how it will manage all Higher Active radioactive Waste in a way that closes this compliance gap.
“Once AWE has met the requirements of the Improvement Notice, ONR’s regulatory approach will continue to consider whether further proportionate enforcement action is needed to ensure the recommendations are implemented and appropriate passivation of the waste achieved. This approach recognises that passivation of the waste will require a number of different projects to be established and completed over a sustained period.
“Alongside this formal enforcement action, as part of our ongoing engagement, ONR will influence timely delivery of programmes of work by AWE and provide continued confidence in the safe and secure storage of waste, working to ensure that the options identified in complying with this notice will have been fully implemented in a timely manner.”