THE Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) sites in Aldermaston and Burghfield have been put into ‘special measures’ by the Government’s nuclear safety watchdog.

They are listed as safety priorities in an assessment published by the Office for Nuclear Regulator (ONR) as part of its annual report for 2013.

The assessment identifies a number of sites considered to need additional ‘special measures’ because of their radiological hazards and safety performance.

It also highlighted that AWE Aldermaston has had the most serious safety problem at any nuclear site in the last three years, when corrosion in a structural steelwork was discovered in 2012, resulting in the closure of the secret A45 building which makes enriched uranium components for nuclear warheads and fuel for nuclear submarines.

ONR has identified the AWE sites as ‘priority 2’ which are expected to require enhanced regulatory attention for the next two years.

The report indicates that AWE’s safety performance has remained level, rather than improved, over the last year.

Peter Burt, director of the Reading-based Nuclear Information Service, said: “While safety standards at some nuclear sites are improving, AWE is just muddling along and marking time. AWE must be more honest about safety issues and risks to the public from its sites.

“The AWE public relations department puts lots of effort into playing down safety incidents at the site and talking up the community relations work done by the company, and it is left to regulatory agencies and journalists to reveal what is really happening at Aldermaston and Burghfield.”

AWE has been placed on the priority list because of its “high hazard operations and aging facilities”.

It means that ONR will have to agree any key steps in AWE’s ongoing construction programme.

Mr Burt said: “The company must be willing to listen to its critics and discuss concerns with them in the same way that operators of other nuclear sites do, instead of sticking their heads in the sand and hoping that the problems will go away.”

AWE has welcomed the publication of the Chief Nuclear Inspector’s Report 2013 and the ONR’s aim for greater openness and transparency around safety and security. A statement from AWE said safety is a “core priority” and added: “The report is clear that all defence related sites, including those at Aldermaston and Burghfield, meet the safety standards required.”

It said the ‘priority 2’ rating was “appropriate” given the “complexity and uniqueness” of some of the challenges of its investment programme.

It added: “AWE continues to work closely with ONR and all other regulators to ensure it ultimately delivers fully functional world class facilities that will enhance the safe capability of the UK Nuclear deterrent.”

Enforcement action has been taken against AWE three times over the past 15 months by government agencies – once by ONR following the corrosion problems at Aldermaston, and twice by the Environment Agency following a discharge of radioactive tritium into the Aldermaston stream and for failing to keep adequate records of carbon emissions.

In May, AWE plc was fined £200,000 at Reading Crown Court after pleading guilty to breaching health and safety law following a fire at the Aldermaston site in 2010, when an employee was injured.