Atomic Weapons Establishment
Aerial view of AWE Aldermaston during 2009
|Type||Non-departmental public body|
|Headquarters||Aldermaston, Berkshire, England|
|Parent department||Ministry of Defence|
The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) is a United Kingdom Ministry of Defence research facility responsible for the design, manufacture and support of warheads for the UK's nuclear weapons. It is the successor to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) with its main site on the former RAF Aldermaston and has major facilities at Burghfield, Blacknest and RNAD Coulport.
Until June 2021, AWE plc was owned by a consortium of Jacobs Engineering Group, Lockheed Martin UK and Serco through AWE Management Ltd, which held a 25‑year contract (until March 2025) to operate AWE, although all the sites remained owned by the Government of the United Kingdom which had a golden share in AWE plc. In November 2020, it was announced that the Ministry of Defence had triggered a contractual break point and would take ownership of AWE Plc in July 2021.
The establishment is the final destination for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament's Aldermaston Marches march from Trafalgar Square, London. The first Aldermaston March was conceived by the Direct Action Committee and took place in 1958.
Atomic Weapons Research Establishment
The British nuclear weapons programme, then operating under the project name 'High Explosive Research' within the Ministry of Supply, established operations on 1 April 1950 at the former RAF Aldermaston airfield. The airfield was constructed in World War II and had been used by the Royal Air Force and the United States Army's Eighth and Ninth Air Force as a troop carrier (C‑47) group base, and was assigned USAAF station No 467. In 1952, the High Explosive Research project was renamed the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE), with William Penney appointed as the first director.
Changes in ownership
In 1954 AWRE was transferred to the newly created United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). In 1971 the production activities of UKAEA were transferred to the newly created British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL).
In 1973 AWRE was transferred to the Procurement Executive of the Ministry of Defence. Parts of AWRE's weapons production processes were carried out at two Royal Ordnance Factories (ROFs): ROF Burghfield and ROF Cardiff. In 1984 these two ROFs were separated from the other ROFs, which were then formed into a government-owned defence company, Royal Ordnance plc and was privatised in 1987. ROF Burghfield and ROF Cardiff remained within the Procurement Executive and came under the control of AWRE.
The formation of AWE
In 1987, AWRE was combined with ROF Burghfield and ROF Cardiff to form the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE). These sites being renamed AWE Burghfield and AWE Cardiff (the latter was closed in 1997).
It remained with the Ministry of Defence, Procurement Executive. However, in 1989, the UK government announced its intention to find a suitable private company to run AWE under a Government Owned/Contractor Operated (GO‑CO) arrangement.
In 1993 the government awarded a contract to Hunting-BRAE, a consortium of Hunting Engineering, Brown and Root and AEA Technology. During Hunting-BRAE's management AWE decommissioned the RAFs WE177 freefall nuclear bomb. In 1998 the company suffered two prosecutions for safety breaches, one for discharge of tritium into a nearby stream and another for an incident where two workers inhaled plutonium.
In 1999 Hunting-BRAE lost the contract to AWE Management Ltd (AWE ML), a consortium of BNFL, Lockheed Martin and Serco. AWE ML's subsidiary, AWE plc, assumed responsibility for the operation of all AWE sites on 1 April 2000. This was not full privatisation as the Ministry of Defence continued to own all the AWE sites as well as a golden share in AWE plc.
Critics pointed out that BNFL and Lockheed Martin did not have perfect safety records either. BNFL suffered embarrassing revelations of falsified quality checks in nuclear fuels and Lockheed was the subject of scathing reports on the operation of US nuclear facilities. Lockheed's failings included safety concerns at the Y-12 facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, an American weapons plant similar in certain ways to Aldermaston.
Since about 2013 the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has given both AWE sites enhanced regulatory attention due to "safety and compliance concerns, and the continued undertaking of operations in ageing facilities due to delays to the delivery of modern standard replacement facilities." The ONR anticipated AWE would move back to normal regulatory attention in 2021 after the new facilities are completed.
Scientists at AWE were involved in testing for radioactive poison after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. No gamma rays were detected; however, the BBC reported that a scientist at AWE, who had worked on Britain's early atomic bomb programme decades before, recognised a small spike at an energy of 803 kilo-electron volts (keV) as the gamma ray signal from polonium-210, a critical component of early nuclear bombs, which led to the correct diagnosis. Further tests using spectroscopy designed to detect alpha radiation confirmed the result.
In July 2015 the Office for Nuclear Regulation issued an improvement notice to AWE demanding that it demonstrate that it has a long-term strategy for managing Higher Active radioactive Waste in order to reduce the risk to the public and its employees.
Return to government management
In November 2020, it was announced that the Ministry of Defence had triggered a contractual break point and would take ownership of AWE Plc in July 2021. Sir John Manzoni has been announced as chair-designate, and will fomally take on the role of chair of the board on 1 July 2021.
AWE is tasked to help the United Kingdom maintain a credible and effective minimum nuclear deterrent:
- To maintain the warheads for the Trident nuclear deterrent safely and reliably in service.
- To maintain a capability to design a new weapon, should it ever be required.
- To complete the dismantling and disposal of redundant warheads replaced by Trident.
- To develop the skills, technologies and techniques that could underpin future arms limitation treaties.
A significant programme of investment took place over the three-year period from 2005 to 2008, of about £350 million per year, to provide assurance that the existing Trident missile warhead is reliable and safe throughout its intended in-service life. The new facilities and extra supporting infrastructure are required in the absence of live nuclear testing no longer allowed under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. 
AWE co-operates with the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States and other American nuclear weapons laboratories in carrying out subcritical nuclear tests at the Nevada underground test site to obtain scientific data to maintain the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons. Subcritical tests are not banned by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons. The most recent test took place in February 2006.
On 3 August 2010 a fire broke out in the explosives processing area at AWE Aldermaston, resulting in the evacuation of nearby residents from their homes. Investigations by a local newspaper revealed that from 1 April 2000, to 5 August 2011, 158 fires broke out at AWE sites, with the fire brigade being called out to deal with alarms on average four times a week over this period. The Health and Safety Executive took the decision to prosecute AWE plc on three charges relating to health and safety after their investigation into the fire in 2010, the first hearing in this case was held on 6 August 2012. On 16 May 2013 AWE pleaded guilty to a single offence contrary to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
In 2013 a whistleblower alerted the authorities to lapses in security caused by misconduct among police officers guarding the base. The MoD said that security was never threatened, but MoD police considered it a "critical" incident. Six officers were dismissed for gross misconduct and 25 resigned.
Formerly part of the Ministry of Defence, AWE Blacknest has, for over 40 years, specialised in forensic seismology, researching techniques to distinguish the seismic signals generated by underground nuclear explosions from those generated by earthquakes. It is approximately 1 mile west of the main AWE site.
Blacknest's main function is to develop and maintain expertise in using seismic techniques to detect and identify underground explosions. This expertise and the techniques have been used in the past to provide assessments for the UK government on nuclear explosions carried out by other countries. The expertise is to be used as part of Britain's contribution to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty which was signed in 1996, but which, as of 2015, has not come into force.
- 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement
- Atomic Energy Research Establishment
- Frank Barnaby
- John Dolphin
- Operation Grapple
- William Penney
- Tube Alloys
- "Our company". AWE. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
- "Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Written Ministerial Statement". UK Government. 2 November 2020. Retrieved 2 November 2020.
- "Secretary of State for Defence Statement to Parliament". UK Government. 2 November 2020. Retrieved 4 November 2020.
- "Our history". Archived from the original on 12 June 2018. Retrieved 11 June 2018.
- "Atomic Weapons Research Establishment and Predecessors". Retrieved 17 December 2019.
- AWE Aldermaston in Newbury Magistrates Court: 13 December 1999 Archived 19 June 2006 at the Wayback Machine. Cndyorks.gn.apc.org. Retrieved on 17 July 2013.
- No Nukes Inforesource: Site Archived 26 January 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Ecology.at (15 December 1997). Retrieved on 17 July 2013.
- MarketWatch.com. MarketWatch.com (18 October 2011). Retrieved on 17 July 2013.
- "Safety concerns over Berkshire nuclear weapons factories". BBC News. 18 October 2019. Retrieved 4 November 2019.
- "Litvinenko: A deadly trail of polonium". BBC. 28 July 2015. Retrieved 21 January 2016.
- "Improvement Notice served on AWE". 13 July 2015. Retrieved 19 August 2020.
- "Sir John Manzoni announced as Chair Designate for AWE plc NDPB Board". GOV.UK. Ministry of Defence. 19 November 2020.
- US conducts subcritical nuclear test Archived 28 February 2006 at the Wayback Machine
- House of Commons Hansard Written Answers for 24 July 2006 (pt 1868). Publications.parliament.uk. Retrieved on 17 July 2013.
- "Fire in Bunker at Atomic Weapons Site in Aldermaston". BBC News England. 4 August 2010.
- Average of four fire calls a week at AWE (From Basingstoke Gazette) Archived 6 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Basingstokegazette.co.uk. Retrieved on 17 July 2013.
- Regional News Network – Press Releases – OPERATOR TO BE PROSECUTED OVER AWE SITE FIRE -OPERATIONAL NOTE. Rnn.cabinetoffice.gov.uk (15 June 2012). Retrieved on 17 July 2013.
- Latest News > 16 MAY 2013 – AWE STATEMENT FOLLOWING READING CROWN COURT APPEARANCE Archived 20 July 2013 at the Wayback Machine. AWE. Retrieved on 17 July 2013.
- "Investigation into security lapses at Trident site 'was bungled'". The Guardian. 8 January 2017. Retrieved 8 January 2017.
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- Gowing, Margaret and Arnold, Lorna (1974). Independence and Deterrence: Britain and Atomic Energy, 1945–1952. Volume 1: Policy Making. London: The Macmillan Press. ISBN 0-333-15781-8.
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