Managers of UK Atomic Weapons Establishment prosecuted for radioactive pollution and lose contract renewal

Hunting Brae, the company that has managed the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) for seven years failed to receive a contract renewal just a fortnight before the Environment Agency announced successful prosecution of the company for radioactive pollution of the Thames.

The EA’s case against Hunting Brae is the first time a nuclear installation has been charged and prosecuted under the Radioactive Substances Act 1993. “It’s the first situation where we’ve found the combination of circumstances that have led us to prosecute under the RSA,” an EA spokesperson told edie. “We certainly haven’t shrunk from using it in the past.” The spokesperson confirmed that the Agency would like all firms to take note of the ruling and to see it as proof that the EA will use the legislation.

In February this year, EA officials discovered evidence of unauthorised discharges of tritiated groundwater into the Aldermaston stream that feeds into the Thames. The Agency was alerted to the illegal discharges by a Hunting Brae employee.

The tritium discharges began in April 1997 and continued until February 1999. UK daily The Independent described the discharges as a slippery slope and quoted the EA’s prosecutor in the case, Garrett Burne: “It started as a minor thing but soon became a major source of discharge of tritium liquid waste – and the company knew it was unlawful,” said Mr Burne. Eventually, unauthorised discharges accounted for 70 per cent of all waste tritium emitted from the AWE at Aldermaston, Berkshire.

The EA argued in court that levels of tritium in water are normally five to twenty Becquerels per litre. Hunting Brae had set itself an imaginary, ‘acceptable’ level of about 100 Bqs of tritium per litre. But the company even broke that limit – two-thirds of the discharges exceeded the 100 Bqs figure.

Hunting Brae has been fined £17,500 and ordered to pay £4,220 in EA costs.

Earlier in the month, when the decision regarding the EA’s case against Hunting Brae had not yet been announced, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) stated that it will not be giving the next contract to manage AWE to Hunting Brae. Management of the facility will be taken over by an equal partnership between British Nuclear Fuels Ltd and Lockheed Martin.

Reacting to the lose of contract, Robin Bradley, Hunting Brae’s chief executive, was upbeat. “The Ministry of Defence has acknowledged our successes over the past seven years and has pointed out that Hunting-Brae has not lost the contract as a result of its performance. Indeed, the Ministry has judged our performance to be above expectations for a good contractor. Our regulators have also praised our improvements in safety and environmental management.”

Reviewing Hunting Brae’s seven years as manager of AWE, Bradley concluded that: “Perhaps our greatest success was in delivering the Trident programme to time and cost, whilst gaining Nuclear Site Licences, both tasks were individually thought to be impossible in the time scale. Together with AWE’s employees, we have safely retired from service the United Kingdom’s oldest nuclear weapon, the WE177. In spite of some alarmist and misleading media stories, instigated by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament recently, AWE now has an excellent safety record and is an example to the rest of industry. “

In addition to the EA conviction, Hunting Brae was fined £8,000 in August this year in a case that involved two of its workers suffering plutonium contamination.

According to the CND, Hunting Brae’s illegal tritium discharges into Aldermaston stream began not in April 1997, but in 1993. The CND welcomed the EA’s decision to prosecute Hunting Brae.

The CND believes that “the need for an increase in tritium discharges appear to be the result of an on-site accident in 1993, when a worker accidentally caused a batch of tritium contaminated water, twenty times greater than Aldermaston’s annual permissible discharge level, to accumulate in one spot. The water was then put into steel tanks, which, according to the Environment Agency, then leaked.”

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