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30 minutes, 1331 objections: West Berkshire pass Hydrus application


The West Berkshire Eastern Area Planning Committee took just 30 minutes to approve the planning application for a hydrodynamics facility at AWE by majority vote at a meeting at the Calcot Centre on 29 September.


Before the decision was made an AWE spokesperson thanked the Committee for the last five years of their "working relationship" as this was the last of eight major projects at AWE which the Committee have rubber stamped.


Acknowledging that the application was "rather controversial", having attracting 1331 objections, the Chairperson warned the Committee to be careful about how they voted. Rebecca Johnson and Harvey Tadman spoke to the Committee as objectors in person. Despite the 1331 objections to the proposal they were only allowed 5 minutes between them to address the Committee on the plans.


Rebecca Johnson argued that the proposed building was an unnecessary facility if the UK was following its policy statements at the recent UN Conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in which it committed to undertake concrete disarmament efforts and also to refrain from taking actions which defeat the object and purpose of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. She said that the risks to public safety should be seen in the context of the the facility being completely unnecessary, that there needed to be an independent environmental and safety impact study rather than simply relying on information provided by the applicant and that a full public consultation should be carried out. She asked the Committee to remit consideration of the proposal to a future date in order to allow all aspects, including fire risks and public safety, to be taken into account.


One Committee member took the opportunity to ask the AWE spokesperson what the Hydrus facility would actually do, since he had not been able to acertain that information from any of the documents submitted in support of the application. AWE said that the facility would create a range of risks, including explosive and radiological risks. He added that AWE "very much regret the fire that occurred" in August but could not comment ahead of the investigations on whether the causes had been addressed.


The Royal Berkshire Fire Service recently confirmed that there had been access problems during the fire on 3 August saying entry to the site had taken "longer than we would have liked". In a worst-case scenario it would be too late to improve, yet it has taken a real incident to demonstrate deficiencies in the emergency plans. Even though the consequences of a serious incident would be appalling the Council seem to be content to afford AWE the luxury of learning as they go.


The Committee were advised that there was no link between planning and safety at AWE and that if the plans were not passed there would be an appeal. The possibility of a planning inquiry was dismissed. Even though this building will not result in any additional employment at AWE, the plans were recommended for approval on the grounds that the temporary jobs created during its construction satisfied the ECON 2A planning criteria. The Committee voted in favour of the planning officer's recommendation with just one vote against.


With a major petroleum storage depot just over a mile away the concentration of hazards within AWE, which include high explosives, fissile material, radioactive and toxic materials, electrical substations and a gas pressure reducing station, together with the recent history of repeated fires and leaks, including a leak of gas, show that the potential for a major disaster is frighteningly real.


An objector present at the meeting said:


"the hazardous activities conducted at these new facilities are taking place within what is now the biggest construction site in the UK. With the scale and complexity of such a massive project it is shocking that the Council have passed it with just minutes of discussion and that they didn't seem to even know what this latest facility would actually do. In spite of the wider implications for safety, locally, UK wide and globally, the thousands of objectors to these developments have been dismissed out of hand and the redevelopment of AWE has not been treated as the major development that it is".

West Berkshire have repeatedly passed all of AWE's plans for new hazardous facilities at AWE over the last five years including plans for enriched uranium handling and high explosives fabrication. AWE have established a cosy relationship with the Planning Committee who have chosen to allow this massive multi-billion pound redevelopment and expansion of AWE to be passed without proper detailed scrutiny. At the same time there has been a planning blight on local housing caused by AWE as plans to build homes within the emergency evacuation zone are routinely refused meaning effectively there has been a population limit enforced within 8 km of AWE.


A public inquiry has been triggered by the neighbouring Basingstoke and Deane Council's decision to approve plans for a housing development in Tadley against the objection of the Health and Safety Executive's objection on grounds of the proximity to AWE. This application was called in by the Secretary of State in March 2010. The Public Inquiry will consider the application of the Health and Safety executives policy on emergency planning and the impact of the proposed development on population demographics around AWE. The Secretary of State will be requested to grant planning permission against the advice of the Health and Safety Executive and in spite of the emergency measures zone and the Inquiry will consider the AWE Off Site Emergency Plan. In contrast to the 30 minutes it took to pass the Hydrus application, the Public Inquiry into the Boundary Hall proposal to build houses will begin on 12 October 2010 and will run for eight days.