Safety 'lapses' at nuclear weapons plants attacked

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GOVERNMENT inspectors have found a string of 'serious inadequacies' in safety at Britain's nuclear weapons manufacturing plants, it was disclosed yesterday.

Safety standards are so poor that the Atomic Weapons Establishment would be refused a licence if it were a civil nuclear power station, according to John Rimington, director general of the Health and Safety Executive.

During an inspection of Aldermaston, in Berkshire, HSE inspectors found inadequate precautions were being taken to prevent a runaway nuclear chain reaction. It immediately issued a 'prohibition notice', stopping operations in the A-45 area of the plant where highly enriched uranium is machined into the shapes suitable for nuclear weapons.

The 16 inspectors found 65 deficiencies which the private-sector management of AWE will have to rectify within a year. Nineteen of the recommendations require immediate action.

The AWE comprises four sites - Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire; Cardiff; and Foulness, near Southend-on-Sea. But although these sites handle uranium, plutonium and high-explosives, all are exempt from licensing under the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 and the Explosives Act 1875.

Management of the AWE was contracted out to Hunting-BRAE Ltd, on 1 April 1993. However, the deficiencies identified by HSE are clearly long-standing and Mr Rimington paid tribute to the new private-sector management's efforts.

One of the HSE's primary recommendations is that the Secretary of State for Defence should waive AWE's immunity from licensing under the Nuclear Installations Act. Mr Rimington said: 'Logically, we see licensing as the answer. The Secretary of State has to make up his mind about the question of public reassurance. Licensing can be an expensive business - how much is he prepared to pay to get that reassurance?'

During its inspections the HSE team found 'no evidence of any effective systems for ensuring that equipment was safe before purchase by AWE'. In addition, 'there were shortages of in-house . . . health and safety expertise'.

Until the HSE insisted, AWE had never carried out a full-scale emergency exercise. During an incident in December 1992, MoD police had prevented key staff from moving around the site. Neither the police nor technical staff assigned to establish whether radioactivity had been released were issued with proper protective equipment.

John Cook, chairman of Reading borough council's health and environment committee, is pressing for a public inquiry. 'I'm not surprised by the findings,' he said.

A spokeswoman for the MoD said that no decision had been made on licensing, although an announcement is expected later this month. She said the Government had accepted all 94 of the report's other recommendations and many had been set in train.

David Clark, Labour's defence spokesman, said that the Government had ignored safety reviews of Aldermaston before and could not afford to do so again. 'This proves what we have been saying for some time - that safety is lax at Aldermaston.'

Andrew Glasgow, the chief executive of AWE, acknowledged that a considerable amount of work remained to be done, especially on upgrading old infrastructure.

The Management of Health and Safety at Atomic Weapons Establishment Premises -A Review by the HSE; HSE Books, PO Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk; pounds 9.