The Atomic Weapons Establishment is the successor of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE), which was built on the site of a former airfield, RAF Aldermaston. 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.
Other Atomic Weapons Establishment sites could be found at ROF Burghfield, Burghfield and ROF Cardiff, Llanishen, Cardiff, the former Royal Ordnance Factories; Orford Ness and Foulness Island. The ROF Cardiff, Orford Ness and Foulness Island sites are now closed.
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. There is currently a monthly women's peace camp held outside the Establishment to protest against its existence.
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.
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 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 does not represent privatisation, the Ministry of Defence still owns all the AWE sites and a Golden Share in AWE plc. Critics have pointed out that BNFL and Lockheed Martin do not have perfect safety records either. BNFL has suffered embarrassing revelations of falsified quality checks in nuclear fuels and Lockheed has been the subject of scathing reports on the operation of U.S. nuclear facilities. Lockheed's failings include safety concerns at the Y-12 facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, an American weapons plant similar in certain ways to Aldermaston.
A significant programme of investment is taking 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.
The 2007 United Kingdom floods affected the Burghfield site, resulting in a suspension of live work on nuclear warheads for almost a year. In the previous year, 2006, 1,000 safety shortfalls had already been identified at Burghfield. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate required AWE to improve safety, stating that it was concerned the risk of an accident at Burghfield was not as low as reasonably practicable.
AWE cooperates with the U.S. Los Alamos National Laboratory 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.