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Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston

Volume 976: debated on Friday 21 December 1979

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12.56 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising in this short debate the question of health and safety at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, in my constituency.

My reasons for raising the subject spring from the investigations carried out by Sir Edward Pochin into radiological health and safety at the establishment at the end of 1978, following the discovery that 12 of those working at the establishment appeared to have accumulated plutonium in their lungs in excess of the level recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

That discovery caused considerable anxiety among those working at the establishment. It also caused the closure of three active areas at the plant. Sir Edward Pochin in producing his report in two months said he had acted as promptly as he did because he wished to allay those anxieties as quickly as he could. Broadly, his report vindicated the health and safety measures that had been used at Aldermaston for many years. In paragraph 59 of the report, Sir Edward wrote:
"In identifying the defects in radiation protection at Aldermaston it is important to emphasise the generally high quality of the industrial safety record…and the good record also in the prevention of major radiation exposures."
Although Sir Edward was able to write that, his report expressed concern about a number of deficiencies and made a number of recommendations that I wish to touch on in the course of my speech. The AWRE was set up in the 1950s to handle Britain's nuclear weapons programme. Presently, it is involved in the design and development of warheads for strategic and tactical nuclear weapons to maintain the effectiveness of the nuclear deterrent, including responsibility for the warheads of our Polaris fleet.

As the brochure for the establishment says, the AWRE is a town-sized complex of purpose-built laboratories, workshops and offices. It is a place where many hundreds of my constituents work. It is also a top secret base, as I know to my cost. Some years ago I sought permission from the Ministry of Defence to visit the establishment and was told that, as Members of Parliament were not positively vetted, I would not be allowed in.

That disappointed me greatly, but at last my chance came in June of this year. Her Majesty the Queen visited the establishment and the authorities decided to ask a large number to come and see for themselves what went on behind the barbed wire fence. I welcomed that opportunity and found the whole day of the greatest possible value.

In the afternoon, I looked round an open exhibition that illustrated much of what went on at the plant. I remember stopping by one of the stands that had a diagram of an atomic plant. It included all the various sorts of safety equipment and procedures that are followed at atomic plants. I asked the official whether that diagram was, broadly, a model of Aldermaston, and whether he could say that those safety measures and equipment were installed at Aldermaston.

When he said that, alas, he could not, I was rather surprised. Indeed, his comment has remained with me since last June, when it struck me as strange that, after the Pochin report with all its recommendations, the AWRE—the only atomic weapons research establishment in the United Kingdom, a plant working on vital defence tasks and crucial to the viability of our independent nuclear deterrent—could not claim to have the most up-to-date health and safety equipment or the most up-to-date procedures.

For all the reasons that are implicit in the statement, that Aldermaston cannot make that claim, I found myself returning to the Pochin report, especially the comments of the then Secretary of State when it was published:
"A programme of action to implement his recommendations, both for the immediate and for the longer term, is being put in hand."—[Official Report, 21 November 1978; Vol. 958, c. 529]
Why has the programme of action referred to by the right hon Gentleman in his parliamentary answer announcing the report had not been implemented in totality, although a year at least has passed since Sir Edward Pochin considered the problems at the base? I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will recall the words that are to be found on page 22 ber that Sir Edward said:
"Certain serious deficiencies in staffing seem likely to contribute, not only to an undue frequency of minor contamination, but also to a potential risk of larger discharges."
In view of those words about the need for increased staffing—an issue that Sir Edward made a great deal of in his report—I shall begin my questions to my hon. Friend by asking him whether the increases in the health physics staff, which were stressed in the report, have come about. He will recall that Sir Edward observed that the size of the health physics staff had declined from 59 in 1960 to 43 in 1978. He may remember that Sir Edward said
"there clearly are not enough qualified staff to carry out the work which the staff themselves consider to be important".
Sir Edward emphasised the need for more training for the health physics staff. Is the increase in the health physics staff taking place? Will my hon. Friend give the latest figure? Will he say something about the additional training that Sir Edward thought so vital?

My hon. Friend may have seen an article that appeared in the New Scientist in August of this year. It suggested that recruitment of health physics staff had proved difficult because of the pay being offered. If that is so, will my hon. Friend say whether the establishment budget is sufficient or whether extra funds are being made available to implement the Pochin recommendations? Surely the health physics staff is of overriding importance if those working at the establishment are to be satisfied that their health is being properly cared for. That being so, I would have thought that an increase in expenditure would be vital if the establishment does not have sufficient funds to recruit the staff required.

Has there been further recruitment of maintenance workers? I am told that there is a shortage of such people. If that is so, will my hon. Friend say to what extent, if at all, programmes at the establishment are being hindered by staff shortages generally?

I have talked briefly about the health physics staff because its members are the monitors of the health of those working at Aldermaston. The health of all those at the establishment is of paramount importance if it is to be able to do its job as effectively as it should, bearing in mind its great importance to the defence of the United Kingdom.

I now address my remarks to the buildings. Is my hon. Friend satisfied that there are adequate resources for refurbishing the existing facilities where that is required, and for getting rid of obsolete and contaminated facilities? He will be aware that the waste disposal plant needs rebuilding. Has that work started? If not, why not? He will recall that under the heading "Sorting and Packing Active Waste", Sir Edward stated:
"The Plant is not appropriate for the work in its present state; the system of work is not good; the ventilation is unsatisfactory."
I want to move away from the narrow subject of health and safety to another matter. Will my hon. Friend comment on the assertion that none of the three buildings in the active areas which were closed at the time of the Pochin inquiry has been brought back into full operation even though more than a year has elapsed since the inquiry?

Will he comment on the statement that I read that the provision of the special uranium fuel for the reactors of our nuclear submarines has been seriously affected as its manufacture takes place in one of the active areas? My hon. Friend may have seen a newspaper report recently to the effect that some of our Polaris submarines are being refurbished in the United States. Will he give an assurance that the refurbishing is being carried out in the United States for reasons other than the shortage of the special uranium fuel that comes from Aldermaston?

Even if the active areas are not all in full production, will my hon. Friend give an assurance that there is no shortage of either that fuel or of that which may be required for the warheads of Polaris?

In this brief speech I have sought to pinpoint three areas of concern relating to the Atomic Weapon Research Establishment at Aldermaston. When Sir Edward Pochin published his report in November 1978, there was a tendency for everyone to claim that it vindicated the health and safety procedures that had been followed at the establishment. Having re-read it, I am not so sure.

There are some who believe that after 1973, when Aldermaston left the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, its administration did not keep pace with other nuclear plants. I understand that it is now the responsibility of the Civil Service. I suspect that there are those who believe that the Civil Service does not have the deep expertise possessed by the Authority. In safety terms—Sir Edward underlined this—Aldermaston has not had some of the simpler monitoring devices that have been installed elsewhere. It was among the last of the atomic plants to install personal air samplers. At the time of the Pochin report it had no whole body monitor. I am not even sure whether the equipment that is being installed is as yet operational.

No one doubts the importance of the establishment to our defence capability. At a time when our nation is more concerned about its defences than for many years in the past, I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the need for all the recommendations in the Pochin report to be implemented as soon as possible is a national priority, and that our only atomic weapon research establishment should have health and safety procedures and adequate staff at a level that is second to none in any plant in the United Kingdom.

1.8 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) for raising an important issue. I recognise his particular and continued interest in it. I begin by giving my hon. Friend the general assurance for which he asked in his closing words about the need for the highest standards of safety at the Atomic Weapon Research Establishment.

My hon. Friend referred to the Pochin report. I shall remind the House of the main thrust of the report. Sir Edward was asked in August 1978 to carry out a full investigation into radiological safety at AWRE. He concluded that the standard of health protection was good, that releases of radioactivity from the buildings were low and that AWRE's industrial safety record was of high quality. I am glad that my hon. Friend referred specifically to paragraph 59 of the report. Generally, it is a reassuring paragraph in terms of general standards of safety. However, Sir Edward's report produced evidence to suggest that levels of plutonium contamination in air in part of some buildings exceeded the recommended limits. The report made a number of constructive suggestions for improving safety standards by modifying facilities and procedures and by increasing safety staff.

It is important that the suggestions in the report are seen in a proper overall perspective, which the report provides. The suggestions cover an extremely wide span in terms of complexity, scope and significance. I am sure that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that they range from proposals concerned with tightening up normal management procedures and aims, such as better communications with the staff, to recommendations concerning major capital modifications and improvements that must inevitably take many years to plan and implement. As my hon. Friend recognised, some of the facilities at Aldermaston are 20 to 25 years old. It will take time, resources and manpower to improve these facilities so that they match the standards of those that are now being built. In a developing industry such as the nuclear energy industry, that is inevitable.

As a result, the report does not readily give rise to a short list of identifiable actions which can be quickly ticked off. It implies a steady and continuing programme on many fronts, embracing all kinds of management action to improve still further the health and safety standards at the establishment.

A special group has been set up at Aldermaston, headed by a senior scientist, a deputy chief scientific officer, to push ahead with the programme. The senior scientist has direct access to the director of the establishment. That is an indication of the importance attached to the recommendations in the Pochin report.

It is in the light of that background that the establishment has set about implementing the report. One of its first actions was to press ahead with the purchase and installation of a whole-body monitor. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury referred to that matter. The monitor is now installed and is in the process of being commissioned. The process involves calibrating the machine by testing the results secured from 200 volunteers who have not worked with radioactive material. The commissioning should be completed in time to have the monitor available for routine measurements of staff working in the active areas at Aldermaston by March 1980. Meanwhile, the staff concerned can be tested by using whole-body monitoring equipment at other establishments. Those procedures will continue until the facilities at Aldermaston are able to take over.

A second whole-body monitor has also been authorised. Work on the extension of a building to house it has begun, and some of the equipment has been ordered. The date for the planned commissioning for the second whole-body monitor is 1981.

The method by which whole-body monitoring is carried out is not a precise and exact way of dealing with the matter. It is a highly complicated matter requiring long testing times, and there is a statistical probability about the result. There are difficulties in definition and in measurement of some of the qualities.

Another aspect touched upon by my hon. Friend was the need for new training and working procedures. Technical training at AWRE has been reorganised, and a revised programme of training has been put into operation for all new entrants into the active areas, and for staff transferred into the active areas from other work within the establishment. Everyone working in the active areas now has to qualify for a certificate by training and/or experience. On working procedures, an early action was to hammer out with the staff side and the trade union representatives a framework of safety procedures. That was agreed with them, and work is proceeding within its ambit. There has been good co-operation by representatives of staff associations and trade unions with the management in the whole area of safety.

Sir Edward Pochin attached particular importance to the recruitment of more staff for the health physics section. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury made specific reference to that matter. We have been successful in raising the numbers of supervisors and surveyors from 43, identified by Sir Edward as being below what was required, to the present level of 88,which is a significant improvement. That means that we have more than recovered the ground which was shown by Pochin to have been lost from the staffing levels of the early 1960s.

There are training problems associated with the increase. They are being tackled with urgency. The more highly skilled professional safety staff are still in short supply. We have a recruiting programme in hand, but that will take time. A strenuous recruiting programme is now reaching the point where we expect to make a number of new appointments in the next month or two. Those additions represent a substantial training task at a time when we are trying to build up the strength of other safety staff.

My hon. Friend will know that within the Civil Service and in public services generally there have been considerable restraints upon recruiting staff, and in some areas a total ban. I assure him that that ban and those restraints do not apply to any of the staff who are needed at Aldermaston for implementing the Pochin recommendations.

As my hon. Friend knows, work on the capital building side is a long-term process. The new buildings and their equipment must be right. A programme of remedial capital work is in hand. Its prosecution will be a continuing process over many years as AWRE updates and improves its facilities.

A reasonably satisfactory picture is emerging, following the publication of the Pochin report, that shows how the health and safety environment at Aldermaston is being improved. I am advised that at least part of the process was under way before the Pochin report was published. The report gave those measures added emphasis, perspective and direction. I am satisfied that, with its continuing implementation, AWRE provides and will continue to provide high standards for its work force.

There are problems and difficulties in carrying out remedial work and in providing more facilities for training. More staff are needed in departments other than the health physics department. In particular, a major factor—though not directly related to safety—in determining the speed with which Aldermaston can carry out its programme is it ability to recruit and train skilled craftsmen. We are tackling that problem as vigorously as possible. We have over 200 vacancies—we are nearly 30 per cent. short—for skilled craftsmen. AWRE has an active recruitment and advertising campaign, and the better pay and increased allowances now being offered make the prospects of filling the vacancies better than for some time.

My hon. Friend properly queried the effect of that on AWRE's output. Rightly, his first emphasis was on the safety of the people working there, which must be of concern to them and their families. As for output, one of the main buildings in the active area is fully operational, and a second building is in preparation for a resumption of work. Several other buildings are still not operational.

We have a programme to acquire equipment, recruit staff, agree improved practices and for cleaning and monitoring of facilities, including the introduction of essential safety and remedial measures. We then move into a resumed production programme, alongside the continued further safety improvements. We are pushing ahead as fast as circumstances allow. I do not want to guess the pace of future events. It depends on further recruitment, and the prospects are uncertain.

Where buildings are not in use—for example, in the waste management area, to which my hon. Friend referred, in the laundry—other arrangements have been made to preserve the continuity of operations until the alterations are done and the replacements are made.

Naturally, there have been delays in AWRE's normal work, but I give my hon. Friend the assurance that I think he sought, that is, that the operational effectiveness of the British nuclear deterrent has not been and is not being affected. He referred to newspaper reports about the refurbishment of our Polaris submarines in the United States. These are, as far as I am aware, sheer speculation and have no foundation in reality.

When the conclusions of the Pochin report were announced to the House in November 1978, the hope was then expressed that Aldermaston could proceed to an orderly resumption of work, with improved protection for its staff. In the past year, real progress towards this goal has been made, but it has not always been as smooth and as easy as all of us would have liked, frequently for reasons unconnected with health and safety. But a great deal has been done, and this reflects to the credit of the management and the staff at AWRE.

My hon. Friend referred to the change which had occurred in 1973, in that AWRE then ceased to be a part of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and came fully into the Ministry of Defence. The advice and information available to me would not lead one to the belief that this in any way could have an effect upon safety at that establishment. I tell my hon. Friend that very close liaison exists, particularly on health and safety matters, between the staff of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and that of the Ministry of Defence in general, and in particular those concerned with safety at Aldermaston.

I end by thanking my hon. Friend for raising an important matter of considerable significance to those working and living close to Aldermaston and their families. I hope that the assurances I have been able to give will be generally welcomed.