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Secret story of 300 safety rules not followed at plutonium nuclear warheads center for UK’s Trident missiles, Burghfield, Berkshire: 12 internal reports

Posted by gmarkets on 9 October, 2007

The remarkable and, until now, secret story of the serious problems faced by the nuclear weapons complex at Burghfield, Berkshire, is revealed in 12 internal reports released by the UK’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate to New Scientist under freedom of information laws.

300 safety procedures not enacted: For the past five years the NB has been trying to force Burghfield’s operator, the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), to tackle “shortfalls” inspectors identified in its safety procedures. Yet an inspection in April 2007 found that more than 300 of them were still outstanding, and they will not now be completed by 27 September as promised. A substantial proportion of them were classed as category 1, the most serious category. They included potential deficiencies in concrete, bricks, filters, glove boxes and door seals, as well as in the ability of roofs and masonry to withstand earthquakes.

Home for nuclear warheads:The NII has criticised AWE’s progress as “poor” and “unacceptably slow”. The only solution, it says, is to start again from scratch. “The current facilities fail to meet modern standards,” an NIl assessment found in 2006, adding that “only the design, construction and operation of new facilities” will ensure that standards are met. The facilities at Burghfield are used to keep the nuclear warheads on the UK’s Trident missiles in working order.

Homer Simpson in the basement: Inside circular cells encased in concrete and buried under nearly 7 metres of gravel, technicians dismantle nuclear warheads, check them and then put them back together. One of the potential hazards is that the high explosives packed around the weapons’ plutonium core could detonate. Should an explosion occur, the roofs of these cells – known as Gravel Gerties, after a character in 1940s Dick Tracy comics – are designed to collapse, allowing the gravel to pour in and so prevent particles of plutonium from being blasted into the air.

Concern on both sides of the Atlantic: In the US, which has similar Gravel Gerties, there have been concerns about the risk of plutonium leaking (see “American Gerties”). In the UK, the NII asked AWE to improve the safety of its Gravel Gerties in 2002, five years after it gained legal powers to regulate them. A detailed review later uncovered a long list of “shortfalls” that the Nil said needed to be rectified, Few details of the problems appear in the documents released to New Scientist.

New Scientist, 22/9/2007, p. 8

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