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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

AWE Aldermaston

Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston, Berkshire, is the facility that designs, produces, and maintains components for all British nuclear warheads. The AWE holds the primary responsibility for the UK’s nuclear deterrence program, employing a team of scientists, engineers, and administrators responsible for Trident warheads. The AWE, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin, Jacobs Engineering, and Serco, has a contract with Britain to provide these services through to 2025.

This main center for warhead research and manufacture is located 10 miles from the town of Newbury, 8 miles from Basingstoke, and 12 miles from the town of Reading. AWE's main site at Aldermaston has been operating since 1952, originally as part of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, more recently as government-owned, contractor-operated facility. Aldermaston employed some 5000 people and the facility covers 880 acres broken into 11 areas.

In August 1946 the United States passed the 'McMahon Act', stopping its wartime collaboration with Britain on nuclear weapons. From June 1947, Britain began the development of its own atomic bomb under the Ministry of Supply Research Division at Woolwich and the Armament Research Establishment [ARE] at Fort Halstead in Kent.

On 1 April 1950, high explosive research [HER] work (the expression used to signify atomic weapons research) was moved from ARE Fort Halstead to a new site at Aldermaston, near Reading in Berkshire (previously an aircrew holding centre for the Royal Canadian Air Force). Other research on the British atomic weapons programme, carried out at the Armament Research Establishment in Kent, was transferred to Aldermaston in the same year. In charge was Dr William Penney, who had been one of the British scientists at Los Alamos during the war.

To make the core for the weapon, new facilities for handling plutonium were needed, but Fort Halstead was too small. In September 1949, an airfield near the village of Aldermaston in Berkshire was allocated. On 1 April 1950, it re-opened as the headquarters of the British atomic weapon programme. The Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) was established on 1 April 1950, by the Ministry of Supply, at the former RAF Aldermaston airfield.

The first atomic bomb, the "Blue Danube", tested off Australia in June 1952, was built at Aldermaston. In 1955 work started on the first thermo-nuclear or hydrogen bombs which were were tested in the Pacific, including at Christmas Island, in 1957.

Its first Director was William Penney. In 1954 AWRE was transferred to the newly created United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). Whereas 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 were separated from the other factories which 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.

In 1987, AWRE was combined with ROF Burghfield and ROF Cardiff to form the AWE. The latter sites being renamed AWE Burghfield and AWE Cardiff (the latter was closed in 1997). AWE Burghfield, a former munitions factory, occupies a 225 acre site and is responsible for the complex final assembly and maintenance of the warheads while in service, as well as their decommissioning. 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. In 1999 Hunting-BRAE lost the contract to AWE Management Ltd, (AWE ML) a consortium of BNFL, Lockheed Martin and Serco which assumed responsibility on 1 April 2000. This did not represent privatisation, the Ministry of Defence owns all the AWE sites and a Golden Share in AWE plc. In December 2008, it was announced that the BNFL share in the management company had been sold by the British government to Jacobs Engineering Group, an American engineering services company.

AWE plc is responsible for the day-to-day operations of AWE. AWE plc is owned by the British Government and managed by Jacobs Engineering Group, Lockheed Martin UK and Serco through AWE Management Ltd who hold a 25 year contract (until March 2025).

AWE Aldermaston is one of the United Kingdom's premier research and development laboratories. It is equipped with an array of scientific and manufacturing facilities backed by computer power unrivalled elsewhere in British industry. This substantial facility has been developed over a period approaching fifty years and consists of a variety of buildings and operational services, some of which are of a highly specialized nature. AWE Aldermaston possesses a wide range of leading-edge technologies and capabilities, all of which are divided into three major departments:

  • The Warhead Physics Department performs research and analysis of the physical processes involved in nuclear weapons. It is further divided into the Mathematical Physics Division (conducts theoretical work, computer modeling, and simulations), the Warhead Hydrodynamics Division (conducts experiments in the processes of weapon assembly and disassembly), the Radiation Physics Division (conducts experimental work in nuclear radiation physics and radiation hydrodynamics), and the Foulness Division (conducts explosive experiments at Foulness in Essex [part of MOD Shoeburyness as of 1997]).

  • The Warhead Design Department develops complete nuclear weapon designs. It is subdivided into the Weapon Engineering Division ("physics package" design), the Weapon Diagnostics Division (system testing for EMP and nuclear hardening), and the Electronic Systems Division (fusing and arming systems development).

  • The Materials Department develops the materials and processes required to design and manufacture nuclear weapons. It is divided into the Chemistry and Explosives Division, the Chemical Technology Division, and the Metallurgy Division.

Other capabilities encompass health physics; the design, construction, and operation of nuclear facilities involving handling of both fissile and non-fissile toxic, specialized materials; waste management; and decommissioning. High-energy systems (including explosives) and high-speed phenomena are modeled and analyzed using powerful theoretical and experimental tools. Although AWE's prime purpose is the continued support of Britain's nuclear deterrent, its developing profile in non-nuclear activities continues to grow.

The early stages of Trident production took place in AWE's existing A45 facilities. However, these could not meet the total Trident requirement in the necessary time scale, and they are in any case nearing the end of their useful life. A major program of capital works taking place at AWE Aldermaston centers on the construction of a new facility for the processing of fissile material and manufacture of fissile components [the A90 building] with associated ancillary and support services. The purpose of these new facilities is to ensure a nuclear warhead production capability into the future, and to maintain the effectiveness of the UK deterrent.

Approximately 2100 cu of low and intermediate level radioactive waste, primarily resulting from old plant and facilities decommissioning, which cannot be disposed of at Drigg, will arise at AWE by the end of 2010. This will be stored at AWE in purpose-built facilities until the deep waste repository to be developed by Nirex becomes available. Plans for the treatment and storage of intermediate level waste generated at AWE are kept under continuous review. Decisions as to the necessity for further ILW storage at AWE will depend on a number of factors, including the availability of facilities such as the deep waste repository to be developed by Nirex. A scheme to provide a size reduction facility at AWE Aldermaston is underway. Present plans are for it to be operational early in the next century. The cost is still subject to negotiation and is not therefore available. There are no plans to create a new store for treated waste from the sludge solidification system at AWE. Such material can continue to be stored in existing facilities. "Waste Stream 7A21" is a term used by Nirex Ltd. to designate waste contaminated by plutonium or uranium. Nirex Ltd.'s planning for future storage arrangements is proceedings. The sludge solidification system is planned to be completed prior to the radioactive waste effluent treatment plant, building A91, becoming operational in 1998.

Some of Aldermaston's facilities include:

  • F6 The main administration building.
  • Area A (“the Citadel”) includes the plutonium manufacture and pit fabrication facilities. The A1 plutonium manufacturing buildings were the original fabrication facilities that opened in the early to late 50s. They became badly contaminated in 1978 and were closed, but were reopened in 1982 to manufacture the Chevaline warheads.
  • A45 The old nuclear warhead production.
  • A90 The new nuclear warhead production facility (construction began in 1983 and ended in 1991).
  • A91 The liquid waste treatment facility under construction at AWE Aldermaston is now expected to be operational in 1998.

In July 2006, two fires occurred as the result of the combustion of specialist metals. The fires led to significant delays in AWE’s nuclear weapons decommissioning program. Another fire broke out at AWE Aldermaston on 3 August 2010 when a solvent used in explosives manufacturing, methyl ethyl ketone, burst into flames. It occurred in a concrete bunker that housed non-nuclear explosives and machinery. A precautionary 650yrd cordon was placed around the facility and houses in nearby Red Lane were evacuated; their residents were temporarily placed in hotels in Aldermaston and Basingstoke. The blaze injured one man and it was determined there was no risk of radiological material spread. However, the immediate vicinity of the fire was contaminated with asbestos; the incident was isolated and no one was exposed or injured by it.

High-Explosives Fabrication Facility

Approval was given in February 2008 for work to begin on the costing £231 million replacement High Explosives Fabrication Facility (HEFF) at AWE Aldermaston. It would replace the HEFF facilities at both Aldermaston and Burghfield. The construction phase, which would replace a number of separate buildings with one, is expected to take two years and would begin in November 2008. The work undertaken in the new HEFF would be the same as before; the facility would replace existing fabrication facilities and would use similar, but generally improved processes through modern, efficient equipment. The main processes involve the shaping and manipulation of explosives material. Limited storage will be provided within the facility, but explosive material itself won’t be manufactured there. The application was submitted in 2007 to the local planning authority on behalf of the Ministry of Defense (MoD) together with an environmental appraisal which addressed the principal environmental issues relevant to the planning proposals. Operations in the facility continue to be regulated by the HSE's Explosives Inspectorate, the Environment Agency, and the MoD Ordnance Safety Group.


“ORION” is the name of the new laser research facility that AWE proposed in October 2003 to replace the current HELEN (High-Energy Laser Embodying Neodymium) laser. The Orion laser facility is used to conduct research into high energy density physics phenomena, which occur at the heart of a nuclear explosion or the interior of a star. “ORION” would be the UK’s largest and most ambitious laser project to date at an estimated cost of £183 million. The site would enable AWE to conduct research in high-energy density physics phenomena and hot, dense matter (i.e. plasma physics). The facility measures 100 meters long, 60 meters wide, and 25 meters high. Only 50 scientists are need to operate the site and the laser is expect to have a life of 50 years minimum. It was scheduled to come online in 2010, though it was still under construction in September 2010. It will now begin operations between 2011-2015.

“ORION” will have 10 'long-pulse' (ns) beam-lines, each producing 500J at 351nm (3w) and two powerful chirped-pulse amplification (CPA) arms producing ~500J in ~0.5ps (1w).It will be housed in a clean-room specially designed to isolate it from the effects of vibration and contamination. High-tech components including CPA, adaptive optics (AO) and meter-diameter gold-coated diffraction gratings will be incorporated in the laser.

The facility would be able to replicate those conditions which occur in a functional nuclear warhead and supply benchmarking data for nuclear weapons computer simulations. “ORION” is designed to be configured to support a wide field of scientific exploration including particle acceleration, X-ray laser research, and the production of short-lived isotopes. Up to 15% of the lasers operating time will be used for collaborative experiments with academics and universities studying star evolution, super-dense matter, and high-temperature systems.


The plans for “Project Pegasus”, a purpose-built enriched uranium handling and storage facility, were submitted for approval in November 2009. The designing and planning of the facility began in 2003 and the ok to build was given in February/March 2010; AWE’s timeline suggests construction would begin autumn 2011. The new facility is scheduled to come into operation in 2016 and cost between £300 million - £500 million. It would replace the existing enriched uranium handling facilities at the A45 complex as well as a number of smaller buildings. The facility would be tasked with:

  • Maintaining and servicing the enriched uranium components of Trident nuclear warheads currently in service.
  • Undertaking the specialized chemical and metallurgical operations needed to manufacture enriched uranium components for successor warheads to Trident, should they be built.
  • Producing highly enriched uranium reactor fuel material for nuclear submarines.
  • Undertaking research and development work on uranium warhead components.
  • Dismantling withdrawn warheads at the end of their service life and recovering the uranium metal.
  • Storing AWE's enriched uranium inventory.
  • Undertaking quality assurance of warhead components by radiography and other means.
  • Analyzing the ageing of uranium materials and giving life prediction of uranium components in order to underwrite the performance and safety of nuclear warheads.
  • Recovery of uranium compounds and metal from wastes and oxides.

The flagship £600 million construction project at the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment – the centrepiece of plans to rebuild the UK's nuclear weapons factory to manufacture the next generation UK Trident warheads - was put on hold in March 2015 following a series of design problems, project management failures, and regulatory setbacks. But the Ministry of Defence (MoD) denied the top secret project that will renew the UK’s nuclear weapons had been halted due to design and management difficulties. MoD insisted work is ongoing, although it was being kept “under close review”, at both project Pegasus and its sister project Mensa, a £734m scheme to build a similar facility at AWE Burghfield in Berkshire by the end of 2015.

Unlike other major MoD spending programs, the Nuclear Weapons Capability Sustainment Programme is not scrutinised as part of the annual review of Defence Major Projects conducted by the National Audit Office.


“Project Hydrus” is a new hydrodynamics research facility also up for approval. With the help of flash x-ray cameras, the site would be used to study the effects of the extreme temperatures, pressures, and shocks that metal and other materials are exposed to during the initial milliseconds of a nuclear explosion. The facility would theoretically allow for above-ground testing of sub-nuclear explosions using both non-fissile (tantalum, lead, depleted uranium) and fissile materials (plutonium). The cost of the project has not been disclosed by the MOD, but it is expected to be in the multi-million pound range (U.S.’ new hydrodynamics testing facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory cost over $1 billion to construct and commission). The plans were put up for consideration in September 2010 and the facility was expected to be completed sometime in 2030.

Project Hydrus was part of the Nuclear Warhead Capability Sustainment Programme and is, therefore, incorporated in the management and operation contract between the Ministry of Defence and AWE Management Ltd. Work under this contract, in relation to Hydrus, includes the awarding of subcontracts by AWE plc for inception, design, site preparation and construction. The collaborative Anglo-French program, Teutates, announced by the Prime Minister on 2 November 2010, meant that Hydrus would not now proceed as originally envisaged. Construction activities will therefore not be undertaken.

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Page last modified: 27-02-2019 18:49:30 ZULU