THE Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in Aldermaston could be issued with enforcement action by a Government safety watchdog, for its failure to comply with orders to manage a growing backlog of radioactive waste.
In March 2007, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) issued a licence instrument to AWE requiring the reduction in volume and encapsulation of 1,000 drums of intermediate level radioactive waste, by February 2014.
However, AWE informed ONR in August 2011 that it would not be able to comply by the deadline. Since then, ONR has pressed AWE to develop an appropriate solution to demonstrate adequate progress in placing hazardous material into a passively safe form.
According to ONR, AWE has improved its arrangements for storing waste and has made progress in developing a long-term strategy.
Inspectors from ONR said the current conditions are “acceptable” for the short-term and “do not give rise to significant risk to the public or the workforce”.
However, the watchdog will now investigate AWE’s failure to comply, and will consider enforcement action.
Enforcement action could include a notice to improve standards or legal action, which could be taken under health and safety legislation.
The Nuclear Information Service (NIS), a not-for-profit group which promotes public awareness on nuclear disarmament, said that as a result of AWE’s failure to comply, raw radioactive waste may have to be stored indefinitely at Aldermaston, or transported off site for treatment and possible storage.
The waste held at Aldermaston includes plutonium contaminated waste from nuclear warhead manufacturing and research processes, and has been gradually accumulating since the early 1980s, when the dumping of radioactive waste at sea was banned.
NIS said that no suitable location for the waste has been identified, and the Ministry of Defence has stated that radioactive waste will have to be stored at Aldermaston until 2070 – the earliest date that the planned national repository for such wastes will be able to accept waste from AWE.
Peter Wilkinson, director of NIS, said: “Radioactive wastes are accumulating and nobody wants to deal with them.
“The company is more interested in its new build programme than on spending money to deal with the radioactive legacy it has left behind – and this is precisely why the regulator issued instructions requiring action to deal with the wastes at Aldermaston.
“Although the regulator has repeatedly pressed AWE to act on this matter, the company has failed to meet its target.”
A statement from AWE said: “AWE remains committed to managing our waste in a safe and compliant manner.
“We continuously work to further improve our environmental performance in all aspects of our operations and processes as this is core to maintaining a safe and secure site for the long term.
“We will continue to work on finding an acceptable solution that meets this licence instrument requirement.”