Ticking time bomb’: Watchdogs slam UK nuclear weapons maker over safety practices

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A British nuclear weapons maker has been issued official warnings by two state watchdogs for flouting safety regulations regarding the disposal of hazardous radioactive material.

A private firm that runs Trident nuclear facilities for Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been heavily criticized by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) and the Environment Agency (EA) for inadequate management of hazardous waste.

The consortium in question, known as the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), produces nuclear weapons for the MoD and has bases at Aldermaston and Berkshire.

Following its failure to ensure key staff positions were filled in order to monitor vital waste disposal practices, the AWE was sent an official warning by the Environment Agency, the Guardian revealed on Friday.

The compliance issue was detected by the EA following a site audit. The vacant positions included specially appointed waste officials, radioactive specialists, and a top executive responsible for environmental issues.

The AWE claimed security procedures, which entail intensive vetting of potential employees, created delays in their recruitment processes. But the EA argues the AWE has contravened regulations implemented in 2012 to ensure an adequate amount of skilled employees are available to oversee the safe disposal of radioactive waste.

“Operators are expected to comply with their permit conditions at all times,” an EA spokesman told RT on Friday. “Following a site audit we found that AWE Aldermaston was not fully complying with all their permit conditions.”

Following the EA’s warning, however, the AWE insisted its staffing arrangement is constantly reviewed, and its radioactive waste disposal methods are “robust.”

“At the time of the EA inspection candidates were identified to fill the posts, but the security requirements have led to recruitment delays. In the interim, existing staff are covering the roles,” the firm told the Guardian.

The AWE has also come under fire from the government-funded Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) over an ongoing failure to meet the body’s basic requirements.

A picture shows the Trident Nuclear Submarine, HMS Victorious, on patrol off the west coast of Scotland on April 4, 2013. (AFP Photo/Andy Buchanan)

A picture shows the Trident Nuclear Submarine, HMS Victorious, on patrol off the west coast of Scotland on April 4, 2013. (AFP Photo/Andy Buchanan)

In 2007, the firm pledged to repackage and downsize its waste by 2014, but failed to honor its commitment. As a result, the ONR is currently considering legal action against the AWE, particularly with respect to the company’s failure to make 1,000 containers of radioactive waste safe.

“ONR is continuing to investigate AWE’s failure to meet the requirements of the license instrument, in accordance with our normal processes,” an ONR spokesman told the Guardian. He added that the ONR will “consider enforcement action in accordance with our enforcement policy when all investigations are completed.”

Reflecting on the threat of legal action, the AWE said it was working with the ONR to solve the matter.

But the company, responsible for the production of military wares regularly utilized by the MoD, stressed that the ONR was content with its waste storage practices in the short term.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s (CND) general secretary, Kate Hudson, described the AWE’s breeches of safety obligations as “outrageous.”

“Not filling key posts which are essential to ensure hazardous waste is dealt with properly is unacceptable,” she told RT on Friday.

Anti-nuclear demonstrators lie in the road outside a gate of the Atomic Weapons establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston in southern England February 15, 2010. (Reuters/Kieran Doherty)

Anti-nuclear demonstrators lie in the road outside a gate of the Atomic Weapons establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston in southern England February 15, 2010. (Reuters/Kieran Doherty)

Hudson said the latest warnings represent “just a fraction” of the “litany of failures at AWE over recent years.”

The CND general secretary said guards sleeping on the job, missed deadlines on nuclear waste removal, blazes in explosives facilities, and faulty fire alarms have drastically compromised public trust in the firm.

The AWE “has shown itself to be either unwilling or incapable of meeting minimum safety regulations at a site which contains the most dangerous materials on British soil,” she warned.

“The Trident nuclear weapons system is supposedly for our safety and security; but if the operation at AWE is anything to go by, it simply represents a ticking time bomb of catastrophic proportions.”

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