Private property rights are rigorously guarded by English judges, but even they must take second place to the overriding need to maintain public safety. A High Court ruling on point placed in jeopardy plans to construct 15,000 homes close to the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in Berkshire.
The case concerned West Berkshire District Council’s decision to almost double the radius of the detailed emergency planning zone (DEPZ) around the AWE from 1,600 metres to 3,160 metres. The extended zone, within which emergency measures would be taken in the event of a nuclear incident, took in much of a 700-hectare site that had been earmarked for development of a new town.
Challenging the decision, a consortium of developers involved in the project argued that the council was over-influenced by the views of the AWE’s private operator and that regulatory oversight of the decision-making process was deficient. The public were said to have been kept largely in the dark as to the rationale underpinning the radical extension of the DEPZ. Such reasons as were given were partial and had only been published after the decision was finalised.
Rejecting the challenge, however, the Court noted that the review of the DEPZ was conducted in response to the 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. An undersea earthquake, the fourth most powerful recorded, had triggered a tsunami and the meltdown of three reactors, costing 10,000 lives. Those events had starkly underlined the devastating consequences of nuclear accidents which, however unlikely, can occur.
The sensitivity of the AWE, where nuclear weapons are assembled, maintained and decommissioned, could hardly be over-emphasised. The council had consulted with Public Health England, the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Secretary of State for Defence, who said that some of the information in play in the decision-making process was of the utmost importance to national security.
The decision was a paradigm example of a determination reached on the basis of scientific, technical and predictive assessments conducted by experts who were qualified to perform them and who were entitled to a wide margin of appreciation.