02 December 2013
Britain's nuclear bomb factory "played down" a fire that could have caused "numerous fatalities", according to an internal investigation by the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
AWE, the private consortium that runs nuclear weapons plants at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire for the Ministry of Defence, was guilty of a “disturbing” catalogue of safety blunders in the handling of explosives, the HSE said. “The failings of AWE were comprehensive and basic,” it concluded.
HSE has released the report of its 10-month investigation into the fire at Aldermaston on 3 August 2010 under freedom of information law. AWE’s actions “fell far below the standard expected in an explosives manufacturing company,” it said.
The investigation discovered that explosives were stored in breach of a safety order, a key risk assessment was no more than a “cut and paste” job, and staff were poorly trained. “This was an incident waiting to happen,” the report said.
The fire broke out just after 9 o’clock in the evening when workers were making nitrocellulose lacquer for explosives. One worker was left with burns to his face and arm, a building was damaged, local residents were evacuated and roads closed.
But the HSE report warned that the impact “could have been far more severe” if explosives in the building had ignited. Firefighters “were put at risk because they attended the building without knowing that explosives were present,” it said. “The company was fortunate that the consequences did not lead to numerous fatalities.”
AWE's own investigation into the fire "played down the potential consequences”, the report said. In October 2010 AWE’s then chief executive, Robin McGill, publicly described it as “a relatively small fire”, saying that it was important “to reassure local people”.
HSE decided to prosecute AWE on three charges of breaching health and safety laws. “The extent of the weaknesses found in AWE's arrangements in the explosives area was such that a string of alternative charges could be laid,” it said.
AWE pleaded guilty at Reading Crown Court on 16 May this year to failing to ensure the safety of its employees in breach of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act. The company was fined £200,000 and was ordered to pay over £80,000 in legal costs plus £2,500 compensation to the injured employee, Ashley Emery (29).
According to the HSE report, Emery was “upset” that he had not been made aware of the risks and believed he had been “misled” by AWE. He told HSE that he “no longer has faith in AWE to look after his well being” and accused the company of being “only interested in saving money”.
“Numerous concerns” about AWE’s safety assessments had been highlighted by HSE in November 2009. But there was “little evidence of management acting on the issues brought to their attention,” said the report.
The report was obtained by the Nuclear Information Service (NIS), which monitors Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. “The blunt truth is that AWE put many lives at risk by taking an unacceptably lax approach to explosives safety, and then tried to cover up the extent of the accident and its own responsibility for what had happened,” said NIS’s Peter Burt.
“Instead of being honest about what had happened and explain what was being done to put things right, the company decided to make up stories to tell local people that everything was fine at the site.”
AWE pointed out that during the court case, Judge Richard Parkes QC, had said that HSE now assessed AWE “overall as amongst the best in the UK in terms of health and safety procedures”.
An AWE spokeswoman added: “Over the last three years, AWE has worked hard to implement all of the recommendations from our independently chaired investigation as well as those made by the HSE.”