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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 88, Cover design by Calvert's Press, Photo by Rebecca JohnsonDisarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 88, Summer 2008

Renewing Trident: Can the UK's Atomic Weapons Establishment Cope?

Henrietta Wilson

Amid growing debate about the future of Britain's nuclear weapons, little attention has been paid to the role of the UK's nuclear weapons infrastructure. Any anticipated change to the arsenal will make demands on the facilities that make, maintain and dismantle the Trident nuclear warheads, collectively called the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), based mainly at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire. Recent media reports have suggested that the government has already decided to modernize the warheads for the next generation of Trident.[1] If true, and despite reported denials that such a decision has already been made[2] the government gives the go-ahead to upgrading the warheads, the responsibility for researching and manufacturing any new designs will fall on the AWE. Apart from this, AWE has the ongoing task of refurbishing the existing arsenal of up to 160 warheads, while many hope that at some stage in the not too distant future, AWE will be given the job of dismantling the UK's stockpile in its entirety - as safely and securely as possible.

With this in mind, it is timely to consider the state of AWE and its ability to perform these functions. What information is available for making such an assessment? In the cloak and dagger world of defence, good starting points are often provided by informed and responsible media, who may be local newshounds or defence or science correspondents for the national press. It is worrying, therefore, to see reputable newspaper articles reporting that parts of AWE were closed last year for safety reasons. But how concerned should we be about these reports? And is safety all that we should be worried about?

Of AWE's two main sites, Aldermaston is concerned with the research, design and manufacturing of nuclear warheads,[3] and Burghfield "is responsible for the complex final assembly and maintenance of the warheads while in service, as well as their decommissioning".[4] Together, these two sites - just a few miles apart - handle the bulk of AWE's core mission, "to manufacture and sustain the warheads for the Trident system, ensuring optimum safety and performance, but also to maintain a capability to produce a successor system should the Government require one in the future".[5]

Safety Questions

That AWE is able to fulfil its commitment safely should be of concern to everyone. Whether pro- or anti- nuclear disarmament, it is in nobody's interests for AWE to operate at inadequate safety levels. However, the Nuclear Information Service[6] and several newspapers[7] have published information indicating that AWE as a whole, and the Burghfield site in particular, have had difficulty meeting the nuclear regulator's health and safety requirements.

The published information highlights the findings of the watchdog responsible for monitoring nuclear-related safety at AWE, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII). NII forms the majority of the Nuclear Directorate (ND),[8] the part of the UK's Health and Safety Executive responsible for protecting "people and society from the hazards of the nuclear industry".[9] ND and NII are responsible for checking both the defence and civilian nuclear industry.[10]

NII publishes quarterly reports commenting on AWE's safety performance in certain areas.[11] It seems that each report is based on fuller classified analyses, which draw on a Periodic Review of Safety (PRS)[12] submitted by AWE, as well as numerous on-site inspections made by NII. Since July 1997, NII has also been responsible for issuing licenses for AWE, without which work cannot proceed.[13]

Outsiders wanting to assess the safety situation at AWE are faced with several hurdles. First is the AWE's institutional attitude towards transparency, discussed later in this article. The second is the difficulty accessing and interpreting NII's work. While the quarterly reports lack detail, the NII's in-depth assessments are classified[14] and, it would seem, inscrutable to untrained eyes. In the absence of a direct window onto AWE and NII, this article has relied on information available in secondary sources, analysed in conjunction with interviews with informed commentators (who wished to remain anonymous) and representatives of relevant organizations, including AWE and HSE.[15]

Although the tone of the NII's quarterly reports is measured and supportive, it seems that elsewhere[16] the NII identifies numerous safety shortfalls, many of which focus on the sites' aging buildings, and the need to either rebuild these or take remedial action. Many recent press reports have emphasized concerns about the Burghfield facilities in which warheads are assembled/disassembled. This involves putting both fissile materials and high explosives in the warheads and is viewed as amongst the most dangerous operations at AWE. Currently a regular part of the job of checking and refurbishing the warheads, disassembly would also be a necessary part of decommissioning the weapons if and when the government decides on further reductions or elimination of its stockpile.

The procedures are carried out in buildings known as 'gravel gerties', two of which have been in service since the 1960s,[17] while the other two were built in the 1980s.[18] In the event of an explosion the gravel gerties are designed to collapse in on the underground assembly buildings to minimize the dispersion of any materials, with the aim of containing the accident.

Long term concerns about safety at AWE were compounded by the widespread flooding in the summer of 2007. The flooding involved the nearby River Kennet, and affected parts of both Aldermaston and Burghfield, with the latter seriously impacted to the extent that its work was suspended in July 2007.[19] According to some reports, 'live' work at AWE Burghfield only resumed in April 2008.[20] Addressing these concerns, the NII noted, "Parts of the AWE sites suffered from flooding in July 2007, particularly the Burghfield site, which delayed remediation work identified by the [Periodic Review of Safety (PRS)] and affected the emergency arrangements infrastructure. The facilities are now almost back to the pre-event condition and [PRS] remedial work has been resumed".[21]

AWE's own account was as follows: "AWE is implementing the recommendations of a comprehensive Review Learn and Improve exercise carried out after the extreme weather conditions experienced in July 2007".[22] Its emailed communication added, "The Licensed Site at Burghfield, which includes the 'gravel gerties', is undergoing its Periodic Review of Safety. This work is being undertaken in a manner which ensures we have the continued ability to meet the requirements of our operational programme".[23] Freedom of Information documents on the NII website confirm that AWE is working towards remedying identified safety issues.[24] But some local residents and observers feel that the undertakings are still insufficient.

On top of the specific concerns about safety at Burghfield, there is evidence that AWE has not taken action on all of the NII's recommendations in the time-frame designated by the NII.[25] Some reports suggest that NII is frustrated by AWE's delays. According to journalist and nuclear analyst Rob Edwards, "AWE's progress in fixing these problems was regarded as 'unacceptably slow' by inspectors. The shortfalls were originally due to be dealt with by April 2006, but the deadline was postponed to April 2007, and then again to September 27".[26] Jamie Doward reinforced this view: "Letters marked 'restricted', but released under the Freedom of Information Act, highlight the nuclear safety watchdog's concerns that deadlines for improving safety at the plant were not being met. 'NII is uncomfortable that some of the Burghfield shortfalls ... will not have been addressed by this time (September 2007),' one letter from the watchdog states."[27]

Some outside observers question AWE's priorities given that the company appears to be procrastinating over the pressing safety issues at Burghfield whilst investing a lot of time, money and effort in new projects. However, while it is not always clear why AWE has frequently failed to meet the NII's deadlines, NII and AWE have provided some explanation for the delays. The Information Commissioner writes, for example, "In recognition of AWE's licensing in 1997, the PRSs currently being undertaken at Burghfield and some of the other AWE facilities are the first to be carried out by AWE under licence condition expectations. NII's experience is that undertaking the first periodic review of safety by a licensee is a relatively difficult process since there are a number of questions which are required to be addressed which have not necessarily been asked before. For example, identification of a solution to a shortfall that is proportionate to the risks involved can be a lengthy process as it usually involves much interaction between the licensee and the regulator and as a result can take longer than first anticipated by all parties".[28]

AWE adds to this, "Completion was delayed by the flooding last Summer".[29] Further, "Over 80 per cent of the work packages are complete with the remainder due to be completed by the end of the year".[30]

The government has denied any negligence in the operations at AWE. On 19 May 2008, in answer to a parliamentary question, Minister of State for Defence Bob Ainsworth said that, "As a result of temporary disruption due to flooding at AWE Burghfield, the nuclear site licensee AWE plc took a decision not to undertake live nuclear working while remedial work was undertaken. This decision was taken on July 20, 2007, in consultation with the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) and with Ministry of Defence officials and was consistent with our planned operational programmes... While the necessary work to repair flood damage was ongoing, the opportunity was taken to maximise completion of existing work identified from AWE's periodic review of safety as a parallel activity".[31] Further, "Spokeswoman for AWE plc, Valerie Hincks said: 'The NII has not taken action to stop live nuclear work at AWE Burghfield. This decision was taken by AWE plc. There is no question of safety being compromised at AWE sites'".[32]

For its part, AWE emphasizes its commitment to safety, and states, "There has been no question of failure to meet the NII's H&S requirements.... The future operating plans and outcome of the PRS process has concluded that the replacement of some facilities is appropriate. In the interim, the NII continues to exercise its authority in respect of ensuring the continued operational safety of all AWE facilities".[33] AWE is also keen to point out that it has been the recipient of numerous health and safety awards from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA).[34] It should be noted that these are not concerned with the nuclear aspects of the workplace but are an indicator of more general occupational health and safety issues.[35]

Some nuclear specialists have a degree of sympathy with this position. Acknowledging that NII has identified a lot of problems, they also indicate that AWE takes these findings very seriously. The fact that the NII has highlighted so many safety challenges does not necessarily mean that AWE is taking inappropriate risks - many of the identified issues could be "niggles", or inadequacies in paperwork, rather than major problems. These observers feel that safety is given high priority at AWE, and that a great deal of effort is made to ensure effective safety procedures are developed and followed.

It is widely recognized that AWE will have an ongoing challenge in dealing with what it calls its "legacy buildings", meaning the aging buildings where nuclear and toxic materials were processed in the past. Budgetary restrictions mean that the management company cannot renovate all the necessary buildings immediately, and the aging buildings need constant attention not just to keep up with changing scientific requirements, but also the upgraded health and safety demands.[36] The UK's legislative and regulatory framework ensuring health and safety at nuclear sites has got much tighter over time - providing necessary and appropriate improvement. Gone are the days when low level nuclear waste was stored in leaking drums in open 'bicycle shed' type structures, as a reliable source recalls was the practice up to the 1980s.[37] However, there is inevitably a time lag in making sure that aging buildings are compliant with new strictures.[38] NII's own description of its role supports this view, describing its strategy of "early engagement with the licensee on significant projects to ensure our regulatory expectations are given due consideration early in the decision-making and optioneering process, thereby minimising future potential regulatory risk".[39] Further, the latest AWE quarterly report states that "NII is satisfied that there is no immediate risk from criticality at AWE and continues to ensure that the risks from all activities are maintained As Low As Reasonably Practicable".[40]

Management and Transparency

Beyond immediate concerns about safety are broader issues about the overall accountability and openness of AWE, reflecting both the current management contract and company culture. The new management contract started in 2000, and the AWE website describes it thus: "AWE is managed for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) through a contractor-operated arrangement. While our sites and facilities remain in government ownership, their management, day-to-day operations and the maintenance of Britain's nuclear stockpile is contracted to a private company: AWE Management Limited (AWE ML). AWE ML is formed of three equal shareholders - British Nuclear Group (BNG), Serco, and Lockheed Martin. ...AWE plc is the company that AWE ML has delegated to deliver the contract. It employs the workforce, maintains the nuclear site operating licenses and discharge authorisations, and its directors have total responsibility for management and operations. ... The MoD, apart from being our customer, holds a golden share in AWE plc and monitors our operations and performance, and along with other regulators assures high safety and security standards".[41] It should be noted that BNG, which runs Sellafield has been trying to sell its stake in AWE ML.[42]

So there are three separate bodies: AWE ML is contracted to manage the work by MoD; AWE plc is licensed to do the work and is responsible for getting the work done; and MoD owns the sites and facilities, as well as the golden share of AWE plc ("which would allow the Secretary of State for Defence to take control of AWE should he consider that circumstances had arisen which demanded such action"[43] ). But although this is a clear statement of the divisions of duty and labour, the arrangement leads to a problematic distinction between the contractor - AWE ML - and the license holder - AWE plc.[44] It also raises questions of accountability, culture and loyalty. Who is directly responsible for safety and security at the sites? Where does the buck stop? Do employees feel as though they are working for the government, AWE plc, or AWE ML?

According to AWE's Head of Corporate Communcations, "AWE ML is responsible for all aspects - including safety",[45] and ultimately AWE ML is responsible for ensuring "that AWE plc continues to maintain the necessary licences and authorisations in order for it (AWE ML) to avoid breaching its contractual obligations to the MOD".[46]

Some observers have noted that despite a degree of visibility provided by changes in the planning regulations,[47] AWE is currently less open than it was when Hunting-BRAE was the management contractor (1993-2000).[48] For example, during Hunting-BRAE's tenure, visits by academics and non-governmental organizations were more regular, easier to arrange, and substantively more useful than they are now. While security concerns will always prevent complete openness at AWE, such visits could provide an element of transparency as to the quality of its work, as well as its attitude to a range of issues including safety. The current management evokes the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, arguing that "Security arrangements, including frequency for non-essential or non-operational visits were reviewed following the events of 9/11".[49]

A recent paper by European academics discusses the advantages of increased transparency in nuclear-weapons related information and compares transparency policies and practices among the nuclear weapons states. It notes that although "the United States and Great Britain are the most transparent ...Even the most transparent democracies fall short of the desirable and possible."[50]

AWE's Verification Project

A positive example of activities where AWE is eager for visibility is its verification research. In accordance with the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, and in response to the 'Thirteen Steps' adopted by the 2000 Review Conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the UK government instructed AWE Aldermaston to conduct "a small research programme to study techniques and technologies with the potential for application to the verification of any future arrangements for the control, reduction and ultimate elimination of nuclear weapon stockpiles".[51] This was in conjunction with the Threat Reduction Team set up at AWE following a report in 2000.[52]

In the initial phase of the verification work, AWE conducted research on verifying warhead dismantlement. The project took up a very small fraction of Aldermaston's budget and covered:

  • Authentication of warheads and components, to establish that an item declared to be a nuclear warhead or a component from a nuclear warhead is consistent with those declarations;
  • Dismantlement of warheads and their components;
  • Disposition of the fissile material, to ensure that it can no longer be used in nuclear weapons or other explosive nuclear devices; and
  • Monitoring the nuclear weapons complex.

Interim reports of this programme's findings were presented at NPT Preparatory Committee meetings in 2003 and 2004 and 2005 Review Conference.[53]

In February 2008, Defence Secretary Des Browne endorsed the former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett's call for the UK to become a "disarmament laboratory".[54] Announcing that the UK wanted to host a "technical conference of P-5 nuclear laboratories on the verification of nuclear disarmament before the next NPT Review Conference in 2010", Browne also confirmed that the AWE disarmament verification project would be continued and expanded.[55] The current phase involves a technical cooperation initiative with several Norwegian defence laboratories and London-based NGO VERTIC (the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre) and covers:

  • Managed access;
  • Authentication;
  • Chain of custody; and
  • Monitored store.

Browne explained the cooperation with Norway as important because, "We need to consider not only what information we are willing to divulge but also what information a non-nuclear-weapon state will want to receive."[56] UK officials went further, explaining that the process of engaging with Norway at this unclassified level serves as a useful insight into how future multilateral discussions could proceed without breaching the NPT Article I and II obligations. The involvement of VERTIC reflected the government's commitment to public diplomacy, intended to show respect for civil society, external objectivity and impartiality as part of their 'disarmament laboratory' approach.[57]

As well as this, AWE has several outreach activities in its neighbourhood, such as a Schools Liaison Scheme, "which aims to promote science and engineering in local schools, and enhance community relations".[58] AWE also runs a Local Liaison Committee, which "provides a link between AWE and it's [sic] neighbours, by bringing together representatives from local district and parish councils with AWE's senior management ...[and] provides a platform to discuss matters of mutual interest".[59] Whilst it is good that AWE is seeking to build positive relations with its neighbours, it could be argued that these exercises are more of a public relations activity than an attempt to engage in open dialogue with informed civil society.

AWE does, however, have connections with the Royal Society's standing committee on the Scientific Aspects of International Security (SAIS), which is actively building links with the nuclear establishment. AWE representatives attended a Royal Society Seminar in December 2007, and in April 2008 a subgroup of SAIS visited AWE.[60] One of the Royal Society's aims here is to facilitate links between AWE and UK research institutions.[61] For its part, AWE benefits, as with the collaboration with Norway and VERTIC, by being able to raise a positive profile for its verification and threat reduction programmes. It is easier and more comfortable for AWE to discuss these aspects of its work than its core programme of maintaining the UK's nuclear warhead arsenal and, if required, researching, developing and manufacturing new designs of warhead for the future. While all these activities are admirable, there is scope for more substantive contacts between AWE and the outside community. This would supplement the fundamental accountability requirement that the MoD should provide frank and complete answers about AWE's activities, safety record, new developments and project funding when these issues are raised in parliamentary questions.

What next?

As noted above, the degree to which we can have confidence about safety and other issues at AWE is obfuscated by two factors. First, is the opacity of AWE. Second, there is an overall lack of transparency in operations and their regulation, exemplified by the difficulty in working out how the NII findings relate to the situation on the ground. However, safety concerns brought about by the aging of parts of AWE's physical infrastructure might have their parallel in the erosion of other aspects of the company, notably the difficulties they may have in hiring and keeping a well trained, well motivated scientific staff capable of carrying out all the complex tasks related to safely building, maintaining and dismantling nuclear weapons.

Some observers have noted that AWE is no longer the exciting, cutting edge place to work that it was during its hey-day of the 1950s-70s, and accordingly it may not attract enough talented people to meet future needs. Perhaps in an attempt to reverse this trend, in July 2005 the government announced a programme of investment on the grounds of "commitment to maintaining AWE's effectiveness and safety by investing in the facilities and sustaining key skills, including the provision of necessary supporting infrastructure".[62]

This includes building a new laser, Orion, to replace the existing facility,[63] which "will be capable of creating conditions in the laboratory which replicate those which occur in an operating nuclear warhead".[64] Billed as offering a potential basis for building links with UK academics, who it is envisaged may be provided with beam-time for researching areas of plasma physics,[65] the laser will enable AWE to design and test new types of nuclear warheads in the absence of the underground nuclear tests that are banned under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which Britain has signed and ratified. AWE is also expanding its workforce,[66] and is aiming to recruit new staff, But it is unclear whether there is an appropriate UK graduate base to draw on, or whether enough suitably qualified graduates would be attracted to work at AWE.[67]

The government is giving mixed messages about its nuclear weapons policy, voting to renew Trident and upgrading the warhead design capabilities at Aldermaston whilst making commitments to pursue nuclear disarmament and taking forward its research project on verifying warhead dismantlement for disarmament purposes. Meanwhile, support for the abolition of nuclear weapons is growing, with the recent prominent calls from influential politicians and others in the UK[68] and USA,[69] reflecting an increasing recognition that nuclear weapons are an inappropriate and counterproductive way of dealing with contemporary security concerns. This raises the question of how the UK's technical infrastructure would manage a transition to a world where reliance on nuclear weapons was being progressively devalued - even to a world in which Britain had decided not to replace Trident when the current system ceases to be operational in the 2020s. As Tom Milne and I argued in 1999 in a British Pugwash Group report,[70] diversification is vital to maintaining AWE as an exciting place to work. Verification, the further development of radiological safety equipment and procedures, and other diverse civilian applications are where AWE's future should lie. More investment in building up these skills and capabilities will put Aldermaston and Burghfield in good shape to address the political and commercial realities of the changing security environment, where nuclear reductions are being undertaken and the complete abolition of nuclear weapons is being envisaged.[71]

AWE plays a vital part in the technical implementation of the UK's nuclear strategies - including dismantling warheads - and it is in everyone's interest that it should operate effectively and safely, and that it provides appropriate reassurance that it is so doing. The government appears to assume that whatever its nuclear weapons policy, AWE will be up to delivering the relevant technical support. But the overall lack of transparency at AWE makes it hard to assess whether the company has the necessary competence and enthusiasm. Deficiencies in openness and transparency have made it difficult to gauge AWE's competence with regard to safety and security, and this needs to be remedied.


[1] Matthew Taylor, "Britain plans to spend £3bn on new nuclear warheads; Decision breaches non-proliferation treaty, opponents say", The Guardian, July 25 2008; Lucy Cockcroft, "Britain's nuclear warheads will be upgraded, document suggests", The Telegraph, July 25 2008.

[2] "MoD denies £3bn nuclear weapons deal", Press association, July 25 2008, ukpress.google.com/article/

[3] See www.awe.co.uk/aboutus/our_sites_92e5c.aspx

[4] See www.awe.co.uk/aboutus/our_sites_92e5c.aspx

[5] Taken from www.awe.co.uk/aboutus/what_we_do_27815.aspx

[6] www.nuclearinfo.org/home

[7] See inter alia, Jamie Doward, "Trident plant shut down in safety alert", The Observer, May 25 2008; "Brit nuke warhead plant closed", UPI, May 25 2008, 5:02 pm; "Storms caused AWE factory to close", Reading Evening Post, May 29 2008, taken from www.getreading.co.uk/news/s/
; Rob Edwards, "Catalogue of safety problems halts work on nuclear weapons", The Sunday Herald, April 27 2008; "Safety warning at nuclear bomb plant", New Scientist, September 19 2007.

[8] For information on ND see www.hse.gov.uk/nuclear/nsd1.htm. For information on HSE, see www.hse.gov.uk/nuclear/

[9] Email to the author from Information Commissioner's Office re FoIA request 2008080170, 10 September 2008.

[10] In response to Freedom of Information Act request 2008080170, the Information Commissioner writes, "The day-to-day exercise of HSE's licensing function is delegated to NII, which is responsible for nuclear safety regulation of UK's nuclear power stations, nuclear chemical plants decommissioning, defence nuclear facilities, nuclear safety research and nuclear related waste facilities. ND has other functions and has responsibility for regulating the security of civil nuclear facilities (Office for Civil Nuclear Security) and operational nuclear safeguards". Email to the author from Information Commissioner's Office re FoIA request 2008080170, 10 September 2008.

[11] These "are the site inspectors' quarterly Local Liaison Committee (LLC) reports, which are published on the HSE website (at www.hse.gov.uk/nuclear/llc/index.htm). ... [They] provide some details of the site inspectors' activities over the reporting period, in addition to NII's view of some of the important ongoing projects plus any key regulatory decisions". Email from Information Commissioner's Office re FoIA request 2008080170, 10 September 2008. The latest report is available at www.hse.gov.uk/nuclear/llc/2008/index.htm

[12] The Information Commissioner writes, "All licensees, including AWE, are required to undertake periodic and systematic review and reassessment of the safety cases. These PRSs ... are normally carried out every 10 years and should consider the following aspects: confirmation that the safety case remains valid in the light of modern standards and criteria, the future design operating life of the facility, changes in technology and knowledge, operating experience and modifications to the plant and its equipment". Email to the author from Information Commissioner's Office re FoIA request 2008080170, 10 September 2008.

[13] HM Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, "Relicensing the Atomic Weapons Establishment Sites to AWE plc: Report on the work by the Health and Safety Executive to grant nuclear site licences for the AWE sites at Aldermaston and Burghfield", available at www.hse.gov.uk/nuclear/awe/awe00.htm. The Information Commissioner gives some clarification: "Licence instruments are a set of formal legal documents issued by ND, to effect regulatory control by permissioning, specifying, directing etc. the activities of licensees. A Licence Instrument permissions a licensee, in accordance with the licensee's own nuclear licence compliance arrangements, to proceed with a specified course of action. Such arrangements, in order to be considered effective, usually involve built in hold points, which cannot be passed without NII 'agreement' or 'acknowledgement'. The main advantage in the use of these powers is their flexibility. They can deal with a very wide range of projects and provide a hierarchy of regulatory control. They are transparent to the extent that a list of all licence instruments is published in the site inspectors' quarterly LLC report". Further justification for NII's licensing decision is given in Project Assessment Reports (PAR), some of which were declassified, available at www.hse.gov.uk/foi/publishedinformation.htm. The PARs contain the "main information describing NII's regulatory position.... [They] are normally produced to set out the basis of NII's justification for taking regulatory action". Email to the author from Information Commissioner's Office re FoIA request 2008080170, 10 September 2008.

[14] In answer to Freedom of Information Act request 2008080179, the Information Commissioner writes, "NII reports often contain sensitive security restricted information, particularly relating to the AWE sites, which means that they are not publicly available". Under the Freedom of Information Act, information about the sites may be released in response to requests. For example, "NII has released information regarding its regulation of AWE Burghfield following another recent Freedom of Information request.... This information is available from the HSE website (at www.hse.gov.uk/foi/publishedinformation.htm)". Email to the author from Information Commissioner's Office re FoIA request 2008080170, 10 September 2008.

[15] Answers to questions put to HSE NII were given by the Information Commissioner's office (email 10 September 1008), and referenced as Freedom of Information Act request 2008080170.

[16] See e.g., Doward, op. cit., Edwards op. cit.

[17] "Storms caused AWE factory to close", Reading Evening Post, May 29 2008, taken from www.getreading.co.uk/news/s/

[18] Emails to the author from AWE Head of Corporate Communications, 5 September 2008 and 24 September 2008.

[19] Press reports suggest different dates, for example, "concerns about on-site safety became so acute that a decision was taken in the autumn to stop all live nuclear work on missile warheads" (Jamie Doward, op. cit.), c.f. "Now the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), which runs Burghfield, has been forced to cease 'live nuclear work' while outstanding safety problems are fixed. The stoppage has been in place since at least December, though it was only admitted by AWE last week", (Rob Edwards, "Catalogue of safety problems halts work on nuclear weapons: Ban on maintenance has 'far-reaching implications'", The Sunday Herald, April 27 2008). But Minister of Defence Bob Ainsworth said in answer to a parliamentary question that the decision to stop work was taken on July 20, 2007. Jamie Doward, "Trident plant shut down in safety alert: Work at missile factory was suspended in secret after watchdog threatened to withhold licence", The Observer, May 25 2008; "Brit nuke warhead plant closed", UPI, May 25 2008, 5:02 pm; "Storms caused AWE factory to close", Reading Evening Post, May 29 2008, taken from www.getreading.co.uk/news/s/

[20] Jamie Doward, op cit.

[21] Safety Regulators' Newsletter report on AWE plc, 1008-04-30, taken from NIS website at www.nuclearinfo.org/view/nuclear_sites/AWE_Burghfield/a1877

[22] Email to the author from AWE Head of Corporate Communications, 15 August 2008.

[23] Ibid.

[24] See www.hse.gov.uk/foi/releases/burghfield.htm

[25] See Freedom of Information documents on the NII website, www.hse.gov.uk/foi/releases/burghfield.htm. Further, the NII quarterly reports reiterate many comments, indicating that AWE does not action all the recommendations in the time available between consecutive reports. NIS provides excerpts of the Burghfield aspects of NII reports during 2006-7 in their report "Compromising Nuclear Warhead Safety in Britain", July 2007, available at www.nuclearinfo.org/view/nuclear+sites/AWE+Burghfield/a1672.

[26] Rob Edwards, "Catalogue of safety problems halts work on nuclear weapons: Ban on maintenance has 'far-reaching implications'", The Sunday Herald, April 27 2008.

[27] Jamie Doward, op. cit.

[28] Email to the author from Information Commissioner's Office re FoIA request 2008080170, 10 September 2008.

[29] Email to the author from AWE Head of Corporate Communications, 5 September 2008.

[30] Email to the author from AWE Head of Corporate Communications, 15 August 2008. AWE also writes, "There is no question of AWE not implementing NII recommendations. Under the Periodic Review of Safety process at Burghfield, it was AWE plc which identified proposed improvements and then agreed a programme of work with the NII. This programme is being carried out to the NII's satisfaction." Email to the author from AWE Head of Corporate Communications, 15 August 2008.

[31] "Storms caused AWE factory to close", Reading Evening Post, May 29 2008, taken from www.getreading.co.uk/news/s/
. The article quotes the answer to a parliamentary question given in Hansard, May 20 2008, 14:00.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Email to the author from AWE Head of Corporate Communications, 5 September 2008.

[34] AWE states that it has won the "RoSPA Gold Award for five consecutive years of exemplary health and safety achievement. This year AWE won RoSPA's National Defence Sector Award, [and] their Astor Trophy for corporate management of occupational health". Email from AWE Head of Corporate Communications, 5 September 2008. In 2008, AWE also won RoSPA's International Environmental Dilmun Award for environmental performance, which "recognises excellence in environmental as well as health and safety management". www.rospa.com/awards/winners2008/dilmun.htm

[35] Telephone call between the author and RoSPA Awards Manager, 19 September 2008. See also www.rospa.com/awards/

[36] The Information Commissioner also makes this point, writing, "It is recognised that older facilities may be unable to comply with modern standards and the PRS has to consider and address any identified shortfalls to either eliminate or mitigate the risk and if there is still a shortfall then an assessment is required to demonstrate that risks are As Low As Reasonably Practicable (ALARP). NII then considers the evidence and arguments presented by the duty holder when coming to a judgement regarding the acceptability of the level of safety achieved. For old buildings/facilities it may be that the 'ALARP solution' is ultimately a new facility. The future operating plans and outcome of the PRS process at AWE has concluded that the replacement of some facilities is appropriate. For the interim, the NII continues to exercise its authority in respect of ensuring the continued operational safety of all AWE facilities". Email to the author from Information Commissioner's Office re FoIA request 2008080170, 10 September 2008.

[37] Personal recollections from a source familiar with the site at the time.

[38] Giving additional detail on the NII's attitude and position on this, the Information Commissioner writes: "While ongoing improvements to the safety case are being implemented, a strategy of permissioning has been adopted by NII, under which AWE Burghfield agrees only to undertake limited defined operational activities. Following such activities and prior to Agreement of the next phase of operations, reviews have taken place to ensure that progress has been made against identified issues to ensure risks are being reduced to ALARP. NII is content that operations remain safe whilst ALARP improvements are secured. Whilst the AWE Act Amendment Order 1997 'dis-applies' us from influencing the design of the nuclear device, NII regulates AWE operational activities associated with assembly, disassembly and other matters, in the same way it regulates nuclear safety at other licensed sites in the UK, and thus it is true to say that HSE's Nuclear Directorate has the powers to require the shutdown of operations and processes if it was considered necessary on nuclear safety grounds." Email to the author from Information Commissioner's Office re FoIA request 2008080170, 10 September 2008.

[39] Safety Regulators' Newsletter report on AWE plc, 1008-04-30, taken from NIS website at www.nuclearinfo.org/view/nuclear_sites/AWE_Burghfield/a1877.

[40] "Aldermaston and Burghfield: Quarterly Report for 1 January to 31 March 208", taken from www.hse.gov.uk/nuclear/llc/2008/aldermaston1.htm.

[41] Taken from AWE website at www.awe.co.uk/aboutus/the_company_eb1b2.aspx

[42] Sylvia Pfeifer, "Atomic body set for US control", Financial Times, January 10 2008.

[43] Email to the author from AWE Head of Corporate Communications, 15 August 2008.

[44] This arrangement began when the current management contract was awarded to AWE ML. Before that, from 1993-2000, Hunting-BRAE was contracted to manage AWE, and, in contrast to the current arrangement, there was a more direct line of accountability for safety issues. See AWE website, at www.awe.co.uk/aboutus/our_history_f77a4.aspx, and HM Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, "Relicensing of the Atomic Weapons Establishment to AWE plc: Licensing of the AWE Sites to Hunting Brae Ltd", available at www.hse.gov.uk/nuclear/awe/awe00-03.htm.

[45] Email to the author from AWE Head of Corporate Communications, 5 September 2008.

[46] Email to the author from AWE Head of Corporate Communications, 5 September 2008.

[47] New developments at AWE have to through the standard local authority planning process. This has lead to a degree of scrutiny of new developments by community groups and newspapers local to AWE.

[48] See www.awe.co.uk/aboutus/our_history_f77a4.aspx

[49] Email to the author from AWE Head of Corporate Communications, 5 September 2008.

[50] Annette Schaper and Harald Müller, "Torn Apart: Nuclear secrecy and openness in democratic nuclear-weapon states", chapter 8 in Matthew Evangelista, Harald Muller and Niclas Schornig (eds), Democracy and Security: Preferences, norms and policy-making, London and New York: Routledge, 2008, pp 143-166, quote from p 159.

[51] 'Verification of nuclear disarmament: final report on studies into the verification of nuclear warheads and their components', Working Paper submitted to the 2005 NPT Review Conference by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, April 18, 2005, NPT/CONF.2005/WP.1

[52] Atomic Weapons Establishment, "Confidence, Security and Verification: The challenge of global nuclear weapons arms control", AWE/TR/2000/001

[53] See for example, NPT/CONF.2005/WP.1, "Verification of nuclear disarmament: final report on studies into the verification of nuclear warheads and their components", Working paper submitted to the 2005 NPT Review Conference by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 18 April 2005, available at daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N05/312/81/

[54] Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Speech to the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace Non-Proliferation Conference, Washington DC, June 25, 2007.

[55] Des Browne, UK Secretary of State for Defence, Speech to the Conference on Disarmament plenary, February 5, 2008.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Much of this section is taken from an unpublished presentation by Rebecca Johnson to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, February 2008. See also, "Swords and Ploughshares: The new nuclear pioneers", The Economist, 14 August 2008. See also "VERTIC researchers attend Norway OSI workshop" and "VERTIC attends phase II workshop of verification project", at www.vertic.org/news.asp

[58] See www.awe.co.uk/aboutus/Schools_Liaison_Scheme_b3140.aspx

[59] See www.awe.co.uk/aboutus/Local_Liaison_Committee_b1478.aspx

[60] Personal communication, August 12 2008.

[61] A Royal Society spokesperson said: "As organisations with a shared interest in nuclear threat reduction, we liaise with AWE where appropriate. Our 2007 international workshop on detecting nuclear and radiological materials benefited from the participation of AWE scientists." Personal communication, August 12 2008.

[62] Email from AWE Head of Corporate Communications, 5 September 2008.

[63] See www.awe.co.uk/set/Laser_facilities.aspx

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid.

[66] "Since the programme of investment at AWE was announced by the Government on 19 July 2005, AWE has successfully undertaken a programme of recruitment increasing its workforce by about 1000, including scientists and graduates". Email from AWE Head of Corporate Communications, 5 September 2008.

[67] AWE notes that, "AWE plc has enjoyed considerable success in recruiting the staff necessary to ensure that we can successfully deliver on the requirements of the MoD. As an internationally renowned centre of science and engineering, AWE remains an attractive place to work even in an increasingly competitive recruitment market". Email from AWE Head of Corporate Communications, 15 August 2008.

[68] Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, David Owen and George Robertson, "Start worrying and learn to ditch the bomb", The Times, www.timesonline.co.uk, 30 June 2008; Des Browne, UK Secretary of State for Defence, "Laying the Foundations for Multilateral Disarmament", Statement to the Conference on Disarmament, Geneva, February 5, 2008; Margaret Beckett, UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Non-Proliferation Conference, Washington DC, June 25, 2007.

[69]George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons", Wall Street Journal, January 4 2007; George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, "Toward a Nuclear-Free World", Wall Street Journal, January 15 2008.

[70] Tom Milne and Henrietta Wilson, Verifying Nuclear Disarmament: A Role for AWE Aldermaston, British Pugwash Group, 1999.

[71] I am grateful to Rebecca Johnson for highlighting many of these points in discussions on this article.

Henrietta Wilson is assistant editor of Disarmament Diplomacy. She was the co-author, with Tom Milne of "Verifying Nuclear Disarmament: A Role for AWE Aldermaston", published by the British Pugwash Group, 1999. In addition to discussions with Rebecca Johnson and Nicola Butler, much of this article is based on interviews with seven anonymous contributors, who have insights into current and past operations at the Atomic Weapons Establishment and the UK's nuclear weapons policy. I would like to thank them for their generosity in giving their time and expertise in talking to me.

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