GOVERNMENT inspectors have found a string of "serious inadequacies" in safety at Britain's nuclear weapons manufacturing plants, it was disclosed yesterday.
Safety standards are so poor that the Atomic Weapons Establishment would be refused a licence if it were a civil nuclear power station, according to John Rimington, director general of the Health and Safety Executive.
During an inspection of Aldermaston, in Berkshire, HSE inspectors found inadequate precautions were being taken to prevent a runaway nuclear chain reaction. It immediately issued a "prohibition notice", stopping operations in the A-45 area of the plant where highly enriched uranium is machined into the shapes suitable for nuclear weapons.
The 16 inspectors found 65 deficiencies which the private-sector management of AWE will have to rectify within a year. Nineteen of the recommendations require immediate action.
The AWE comprises four sites - Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire; Cardiff; and Foulness, near Southend-on-Sea. But although these sites handle uranium, plutonium and high-explosives, all are exempt from licensing under the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 and the Explosives Act 1875.
Management of the AWE was contracted out to Hunting-BRAE Ltd, on 1 April 1993. However, the deficiencies identified by HSE are clearly long-standing and Mr Rimington paid tribute to the new private-sector management's efforts.
One of the HSE's primary recommendations is that the Secretary of State for Defence should waive AWE's immunity from licensing under the Nuclear Installations Act. Mr Rimington said: "Logically, we see licensing as the answer. The Secretary of State has to make up his mind about the question of public reassurance. …