Costly delays led to private sector taking control

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The Independent Online
PRIVATE contractors took over the management of Aldermaston, Britain's nuclear weapons design office and production factory, on April Fools' Day 1993.

A consortium of Hunting plc, AEA Technology (the former Atomic Energy Authority) and Brown and Root, took over from the Ministry of Defence. This was not a privatisation but a 'contractorisation', triggered by long-standing concerns over a series of cost-overruns and construction delays during the 1980s.

Aldermaston's former management was having difficulties building the new plutonium-handling facilities that would be needed for the Trident missile warheads.

The A90 plutonium processing building was due to be operational in 1986, but testing of its systems began only this year. The problems threatened to delay the entry into service of Trident.

In January last year, Greenpeace released a report criticising safety at the plant, alleging that there had been 58 serious incidents between 1955 and 1992, leading to deaths, injuries and radioactive contamination - 33 of the incidents having occurred since 1978.

Aldermaston's golden age was during the 1950s and 1960s, when it produced, successively, Britain's first atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb.

But after the first Polaris warheads had been made, and successfully tested, there was little work for Aldermaston to do. In 1972, after nearly 20 years under the Atomic Energy Authority, it was brought under the direct control of the Ministry of Defence.

However, costs began to rise again as the Chevaline programme to 'modernise' the Polaris warheads got under way in the early 1970s.

Safety fears were raised when plutonium was found in the laundry and some workers had become contaminated with plutonium dust - some receiving more than the maximum permissible exposure.

The incident triggered an investigation resulting in the publication in 1978 of a devastating indictment of the plant's safety management by the radiologist Sir Edward Pochin.

He recommended action in two main areas: an increase in staff and replacement of problem buildings, especially the waste management complex.

He also criticised poor 'housekeeping' and general sloppiness. More than 15 years on, the building is still not ready.

In the 1980s, the management had to try to resolve the tensions of adhering to higher safety standards while bringing new plant and equipment on line to produce Trident warheads. The strain became too much and the Government brought in private managers.