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Personnel, Funding Shortages Endanger British Nuke Safety, Report Warns

A British Defense Ministry assessment says funding reductions and insufficient numbers of workers have intensified the risk of accidents involving the United Kingdom's atomic armaments, the London Guardian reported on Tuesday (see GSN, July 9).

A "lack of adequate resources" are available "to deliver the defense nuclear programs safely," Defense Ministry atomic safety chief Commodore David Langbridge wrote in the assessment, adding the issue is intensifying and demands "significant action."

The document, which examines developments last year, echoes cautionary statements from a 2010 assessment, according to the Guardian.

Warheads from the United Kingdom's 220-weapon arsenal undergo routine transfer between their Coulport holding facility and the Aldermaston and Burghfield manufacturing sites. The nation also holds four atomic-powered submarines that carry the nuclear-tipped Trident ballistic missiles, along with six submersible vessels that run on atomic power while carrying non-nuclear armaments.

Langbridge stated: "Inadequacy of resources, both money and staff complement, and the difficulties in maintaining a sustainable cadre of suitably competent staff (Royal Navy, [Defense Ministry] civilians and in industry partners) are the principal threats to safety in the defense nuclear program in the medium term."

"Significant action might be necessary within a year" to address the funding and personnel issues, the report indicates. As a result of increasingly lower Defense Ministry appropriations, there is a "degrading" sufficiency of assets, Langbridge wrote.

Among six additional lower-priority concerns is a shortage of finances for retiring submarines, as well as irregular means of keeping human receipt of radiation as low as possible and of displaying facility accident prevention measures.

"The number of incidents remains too high," the document's author wrote. "Individually they have not been of high significance or safety/environmental detriment, but taken together they produce concern that working conditions and culture might not prevent an incident of higher significance."

Every matter of concern constitutes a possible threat, Langbridge added. "They pose the risk that it will become increasingly difficult to maintain that the defense nuclear programs are being managed with due regard for the protection of the work force, the public and the environment."

Cabinet officials have neglected cautionary statements from the atomic watchdog, according to former Defense Ministry radiation protection policy chief Fred Dawson.

"The [Defense Ministry] has failed to allocate sufficient resources to nuclear safety," Dawson said

Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament coordinator John Ainslie added: "The government is putting the safety of the public at risk by cutting the nuclear safety budget while they press ahead with the plan to build new nuclear-armed submarines."

The Defense Ministry, though, defended its history of avoiding accidents over the last half century.

"The report recognizes a wide range of actions we have already taken, and the progress that has been made, towards sustaining those high standards of safety, including actions on maintaining sufficient numbers of experienced personnel," a ministry spokesman said (Rob Edwards, London Guardian, July 17).

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