On 3 August, a fire broke out in the explosives area at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston. Despite there officially being “no radiological implications” to the fire, a number of local residents were evacuated from their homes.
The Nuclear Information Service (NIS) warned of the risk of a “domino effect” of explosives igniting each other, and raised questions about regulatory standards at AWE, where a number of operations are not regulated by the Health and Safety Executive but are instead controlled by the Ministry of Defence.
Peter Burt, director of NIS, said: “It seems that we came within a hair’s breadth of everyone’s nightmare scenario…. this incident shows that accidents can and do happen.” NIS called for a full independent inquiry, with the results of the inquiry being made public “so that local people can see that lessons have been learnt and that their safety is AWE’s number one priority.”
Severe flooding at Atomic Weapons Establishment Burghfield, near Reading, Berkshire, on 20 July 2007 came close to overwhelming the site, resulting in a “near miss” event and causing long-term disruption to nuclear weapons manufacture. The scale of the event only became clear when NIS used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain unpublished documents a year later.
Despite the history of flooding at Burghfield, AWE are pushing ahead with a massive programme of building work on the site, intended to develop new facilities which would allow the production of a new generation of warheads to replace Trident nuclear weapons. The official answer to a parliamentary question asked by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas on 16 June revealed that taxpayers have been dumped with a £5m bill to cover the costs of the 2007 flood, as insurers avoided liability.
In related news, campaigners are lobbying West Berkshire Council to refuse AWE Aldermaston’s request for planning permission for a new “hydrodynamics research facility” which will study the behaviour of materials within nuclear warheads. The facility is a crucial part of the Trident replacement programme, and recreates the extreme conditions within a nuclear explosion without causing a detonation.