BNFL consortium seeks 15-year extension to Aldermaston contract

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The privately owned consortium which was allowed to take over the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston last year despite concerns over its safety record has asked the Government to extend its 10-year contract to 25 years.

Provided the Ministry of Defence agrees, then AWE Management Limited, a joint venture between British Nuclear Fuels, the outsourcing group Serco and Lockheed Martin of the US, will operate the Berkshire weapons base until 2025.

The Government sparked controversy when it awarded the £2.2bn Aldermaston contract to AWE Management last April because of concerns over the safety record of BNFL and Lockheed Martin. The job of Aldermaston's 4,000-strong workforce is to maintain Britain's current nuclear deterrent, which is carried on board the Trident submarine, and ensure it retains the capacity to develop a new one should it be needed.

BNFL was involved in a scandal over the falsification of safety records at its Sellafield reprocessing plant in Cumbria while Lockheed Martin was criticised over its management of the Oakridge nuclear weapons facility in the US following a fire in which an employee died.

Serco, meanwhile, suffered a recent setback after losing the competition to take over Britain's air traffic control service NATS because of opposition from public service unions on safety grounds.

AWE Management maintains, however, that since it took over Aldermaston 15 months ago, it has outperformed the requirements laid down by the MoD. The consortium's running of the plant has been approved by the Nuclear Installations Ins-pectorate and the Environment Agency. A second report from the NII, due to be submitted this week, is also understood to be supportive.

The 15-year extension to the contract will be tied to a major investment programme at the weapons establishment costing hundreds of millions of pounds. Under the plan, AWE's Burghfield plant, which assembles and decommissions nuclear weapons, will be closed and its operations switched to the Aldermaston site.

AWE Management has also been looking at ways of exploiting its technology in other fields. For instance, scientists at Aldermaston have developed an intrinsically safe radiation monitoring device for use in dangerous environments such as the oil industry.

They have also developed a new lightweight but very strong material called boron carbide which is used to make armour and coat moving parts.

A spokesman stressed, however, that AWE Management did not intend to embark on a major diversification programme. He said its main function would remain the servicing of Britain's nuclear deterrent. "Where we diversify it will be for a specific purpose or to help us retain our skills base in order to continue to attract bright young graduates from university," he added.