- Subscribe to PCF Networked Blog Daily Updates
- Subscribe to our Twitter / Google / Yahoo Daily Updates
A top-secret plant at Aldermaston that makes enriched uranium components for Britain's nuclear warheads and fuel for the Royal Navy's submarines has been shut down because corrosion has been discovered in its "structural steelwork", the Guardian can reveal.
The closure has been endorsed by safety regulators who feared the building did not conform to the appropriate standards. The nuclear safety watchdog demands that such critical buildings are capable of withstanding "extreme weather and seismic events", and the plant at Aldermaston failed this test.
It has set a deadline of the end of the year for the problems to be fixed.
Although the closed plant has not been officially named for national security reasons, the Guardian understands it is known as A45. It makes enriched uranium components for Trident nuclear warheads and has recently been helping to make the uranium fuel for the Astute generation of nuclear-powered submarines.
The Ministry of Defence insisted it had contingency plans to cover the loss of the plant, but prolonged closure could force the government to buy materials from the US to ensure there is no disruption to Britain's nuclear weapons programme.
The government's safety watchdog, the Office for Nuclear Regulation has taken legal enforcement action against AWE, the private consortium that runs the nuclear weapons complex at Aldermaston, Berkshire, ordering that the corroded steel be repaired.
Though the corrosion was first found last May and the enforcement notice served in November, the information only emerged via an ONR newsletter published online in the past few days. This has prompted critics to accuse AWE of not being forthcoming about a problem it detected eight months ago.
The ONR confirmed that inspections by AWE "discovered an unexpected area of corrosion on structural steelwork in one of their manufacturing facilities at Aldermaston".
The ONR launched an investigation that concluded AWE had breached a condition of its operating licence meant to ensure safe operation. "AWE had not fully complied with licence condition 28(1) in so far as its arrangements to examine, maintain and inspect the structure were not adequate to prevent the degradation of the structure, and the resulting challenge to its nuclear safety functions," said an ONR spokesman.
AWE is run for the Ministry of Defence by a group of three private companies: Lockheed Martin and Jacobs Engineering Group from the US and the British company Serco. It provides and maintains the nuclear warheads for Trident missiles carried by four Vanguard-class submarines based on the Clyde near Glasgow.