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Aldermaston (Radiological Safety)

Volume 958: debated on Tuesday 21 November 1978

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asked the Secretary of State for Defence when the report by Sir Edward Porchin on radiological safety at Aldermaston is to be published; and if he will make a statement.

On 17th August I asked Sir Edward Pochin to carry out a full investigation into radiological safety at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment and Aldermaston because a considerable number of staff appeared to have high levels of plutonium contamination in their chests.I have now received Sir Edward Pochin's report; and in view of the anxieties of the staff and members of the public I have thought it right to make the report available in full as soon as practicable. Copies are available to hon. Members in the Library.

The report, as well as dealing with plutonium contamination in the chest, covers plutonium taken up in the rest of the body, uranium, tritium, americium and general radiation from other facilities. It also covers the low level release of radioactivity from the active area buildings to the site itself, and releases from the site to the general environment. Sir Edward concludes that the standard of health protection in the establishment is good and that releases of radioactivity from the buildings and from the establishment itself are low and well below the agreed level. Nevertheless he has found evidence to suggest that the levels of plutonium contamination in air in some of the working spaces in certain of the buildings commonly exceed the limits recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection and that the present standard of protection at the establishment must be regarded as border-line in respect of inhaled plutonium.

However, the incidence of actual plutonium contamination in the chests of members of the AWRE is now known to be much lower than it appeared in August. When Sir Edward wrote his report, the results of the first 339 chest monitoring cases were available. He has subsequently provided me with more up-to-date figures. Out of over 700 persons tested, it is likely that rather less than 3 per cent. apparently had plutonium in the chest at the first measurement. Re-testing has proceeded, and so far only about one-third of those re-tested appear to retain any persistent activity.

The report makes constructive suggestions for the improvement of health protection and safety standards at Aldermaston, particularly in regard to airborne plutonium contamination in working spaces. The Government have acepted all Sir Edward's suggestions and recommendations for improvements to health and safety. A programme of action to implement his recommendations, both for the immediate and for the longer term, is being put in hand, in full consultation with the staff associations and trade unions concerned. Additional health and safety staff will be appointed as soon as they can be recruited.

In addition, all Ministry of Defence radiation workers will be entered in the National Registry of Radiation Workers. Arrangements have also been concluded which enable the Health and Safety Executive to carry out Health and Safety at Work etc. Act inspections of all AWRE buildings including laboratories while maintaining a high standard of security. Special arrangements for the security and distribution of Health and Safety Executive reports on this establishment are being made in order to prevent information on nuclear weapon design coming into unauthorised hands.

While Sir Edward Pochin has been investigating the active areas at AWRE the work in these areas has been suspended and the staff employed on other duties. Negotiations are under way with the staff and trades union sides concerned to ensure an early and phased resumption of work in the active areas as and when the agreed health and safety precautions can be instituted for each building. Any person who has to be withheld from active work in future because of an overdose of radiation will have his pay and allowances appropriately protected.

I should like to conclude by putting on record my thanks to Sir Edward Pochin for his extremely thorough report. I know that he felt that speed was necessary because of the anxieties of the workers at the establishment, and I am most grateful to him for reporting so promptly. I believe that his report puts into its correct perspective the question of the health and safety of our staff in Aldermaston, to which I attach the highest priority. As he says in paragraph 59 of his report:

"In identifying the defects in radiation procedure in Aldermaston it is important to emphasise the general high quality of the industrial safety record and the good record also in the prevention of major radiation exposures. The problems arise from the occurrence of quite moderate over-exposures at the level of, or at a few times the level of, the limits recommended by the International Committee on Radiological Protection".

I hope we can now proceed to an orderly resumption of work with improved protection for our staff.