Atomic Weapons Establishment
Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) is responsible for the design,
manufacture and support of warheads for the United Kingdom'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.
AWE plc, responsible for the day-to-day operations of AWE, is owned by
a consortium of Jacobs Engineering Group,
Lockheed Martin UK
Lockheed Martin UK and Serco
through AWE Management Ltd, which holds a 25‑year contract (until
March 2025) to operate AWE. All the sites are owned by the Government
of the United Kingdom which has a golden share in AWE plc.
The establishment is the final destination for the Campaign for
Nuclear Disarmament's annual march from Trafalgar Square, London. The
first Aldermaston March was conceived by the Direct Action Committee
and took place in 1958.
1.1 Atomic Weapons Research Establishment
1.2 Changes in ownership
1.3 The formation of AWE
1.4 Private management
2.1 AWE's responsibilities
2.2 Safety record
2.3 Security breaches
3 Nuclear weapons
4 AWE Blacknest
5 See also
6.1 Further reading
7 External links
Atomic Weapons Research Establishment
The Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) was established on 1
April 1950, by the Ministry of Supply, at the former RAF Aldermaston
airfield. The airfield was constructed in World War II and had
been used by the
Royal Air Force
Royal Air Force and the United States Army's Eighth
Ninth Air Force
Ninth Air Force as a troop carrier (C‑47) group base, and was
assigned USAAF station No 467. AWRE's first Director was William
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.
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
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
Atomic Weapons Establishment
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
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
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
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.
In December 2008, the
BNFL share in AWE Management Ltd was sold to
Jacobs Engineering Group, an American engineering services company.
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
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
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
AWE cooperates with the
Los Alamos National Laboratory
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
Subcritical tests are not banned by the Comprehensive
Test Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons. The most recent test took place in
The cost of decommissioning AWE facilities when they become redundant,
including nuclear waste disposal, was estimated at £3.4 billion in
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 by personnel at 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.
Main article: Nuclear weapons and the United Kingdom
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
John Dolphin CBE
^ "Our company". AWE. Retrieved 27 February 2016.
^ http://www.1and1.co.uk/?kwk=2933855 Archived 19 June 2006 at the
Wayback Machine.. Cndyorks.gn.apc.org. Retrieved on 17 July 2013.
^ No Nukes Inforesource: Site. Ecology.at (15 December 1997).
Retrieved on 17 July 2013.
^ MarketWatch.com. MarketWatch.com (18 October 2011). Retrieved on 17
^ "Litvinenko: A deadly trail of polonium". BBC. 28 July 2015.
Retrieved 21 January 2016.
^  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.
Arnold, Lorna (2001). Britain and the H-bomb. Basingstoke: Palgrave
Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-94742-8.
Freeman, Roger A. (1994). UK Airfields of the Ninth: Then and Now. Old
Harlow: After the Battle. ISBN 0-900913-80-0.
Lawyer. L.C et al. (2001). Geophysics in the Service of Mankind: Soc.
of Exploration Geophysics, Tulsa. ISBN 1-56080-087-9
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.
Gowing, Margaret and Arnold, Lorna (1974). Independence and
Deterrence: Britain and Atomic Energy, 1945–1952. Volume 2: Policy
Execution. London: The Macmillan Press. ISBN 0-333-16695-7.
Official AWE site
History of AWE
Nuclear Information Service