HC Deb 29 March 2000 vol 347 cc159-60W
Mr. Salter

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on what arrangements have been made to operate the Atomic Weapons Establishment sites at Aldermaston and Burghfield from 1 April. [117045]

Mr. Spellar

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced on 21 February 2000,Official Report, column 1223, that we were reviewing the AWE contract to operate Aldermaston and Burghfield to ensure the pre-eminence of public health and safety. The Government have always made it clear that we would not allow the AWE Management Ltd. consortium to take over the operation of AWE unless we were convinced that safety would not be compromised.

As part of this review each nominee for a director's post at AWE was checked for suitability and to confirm they were not connected with any of the incidents that have caused concern at Lockheed Martin's US facilities or to problems at BNFL Sellafield. The Chief of Defence Procurement also carried out a detailed scrutiny of the terms and conditions of the contract placed with AWE ML. He has confirmed that safety was treated as the highest priority.

The Chief Executive of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) has also confirmed that he is satisfied with the ability of AWE ML to operate the sites safely and effectively. He has therefore issued new nuclear site licences. The Environment Agency (EA) has already granted new site discharge authorisations under the Radioactive Substances Act to take effect from 1 April. As a condition of this the EA require AWE ML to submit a report by 30 April 2000 of any proposed changes to the existing management systems and resources and not to implement any changes without the prior consent of the EA. The NII and EA will of course continue to monitor rigorously the safety performance of the new company. Both have also agreed separately to carry out in-depth reviews of all aspects of safety at AWE and to issue public reports after three and 12 months.

Hugh Collum, the new Chairman of BNFL, is currently preparing a report for the Department of Trade and Industry on management and organisation at Sellafield and he has assured us that there will be nothing in his review that could reasonably be read as detrimental to the safe operation of AWE. The NII has also assured the MOD that the problems experienced at Sellafield will have no application to BNFL's proposed role as a shareholder in the AWE ML consortium.

A strict and comprehensive safety regime already exists, monitored by MOD officials as well as the EA and NIL All three authorities carry out regular inspections and have the powers to scrutinise any paperwork, interview any individual, and visit any of the facilities at Aldermaston or Burghfield. They have the authority to close down any part or all of the facilities for whatever reason should safety be put at risk. AWE ML does not have the authority to alter significantly the existing operating procedures without first seeking the approval of the regulators.

In view of the satisfactory outcome of these checks along with the effectiveness of the existing safety regime at AWE, we are satisfied that safety will not be compromised by the implementation of the new contract. This is also the opinion of the EA and the NIL Accordingly, we have decided that AWE ML will take over operation of the AWE sites as from 1 April 2000. However, we will continue to scrutinise closely the safety performance of the new management. We will also be looking to the new operators to preserve and, where possible, extend the policy of openness adopted by Hunting BRAE over the last seven years.

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