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News Extra: UK Atomic Weapons Establishment fined over latest in series of safety incidents

26 July 2013

The Atomic Weapons Establishment PLC (AWE) was ordered to pay more than £280,000 in fines and costs for significant failings relating to its use and control of explosive materials after a worker was injured when a fire broke out in an explosives processing building. This is the latest in a series of major safety incidents at AWE’s sites at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire.

AWE's Burghfield site - Photo: MOD
AWE's Burghfield site - Photo: MOD

A worker burnt his left arm and face in the incident at the company's Aldermaston base in Berkshire on August 3, 2010.

Reading Crown Court heard in June that he was breaking dry nitrocellulose (NC) into a plastic bucket which contained methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) - both volatile agents - as part of the process of producing a lacquer. He moved away from the mixture, removed his respirator, and returned to have a better look, at which point the contents of the bucket ignited and produced a fireball. He managed to flee before the fire took hold, spread and seriously damaged the building.

The fire required the evacuation of a number of local residents and closure of roads around the site as safety precautions. Firefighters from the Berkshire and Hampshire fire services attended the incident, which led to concerns about the dispersal of asbestos from the damaged building.

A report on the fire prepared for AWE in 2011 by Peter McIntyre, a member of AWE's Nuclear Safety Committee, identified a number of safety failures which contributed to the incident.  The report concluded that the production operation that led to the fire “was not carried out in accordance with appropriate process instructions” and had not been authorised to take place on the day of the fire.  Failure to comply with operating instructions, explosives safety orders, and planned work schedules “further weakened the barriers to an event involving explosives”.

McIntyre's report revealed that the work area where the fire took place contained high explosives in excess of the limit specified in the Explosives Safety Order for the building, even though these were not required for the operation being conducted.  Because of “a perceived feeling of pressure” some members of staff involved in the incident intended to work a shift of up to 16 hours on the night of the fire.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigated the fire and established that there were failures of supervision, monitoring and auditing over time, including in relation to the conducting, validating and approval of risk assessments. Another major issue was that unnecessary hazardous materials were being stored in the manufacturing area, and a number of explosive processes were taking place at the same time.

After sentencing HSE inspector Dave Norman said:

"The fire could have caused multiple casualties and it was entirely preventable had better control systems been in place.

"The failure to instigate such controls was dependent on AWE identifying potential hazards and risks, all of which were well documented, but that simply did not happen.

"The building and equipment within it did not comply with the-then current standards required for storing and handling explosives, which are potentially sensitive to static electricity, nor for storing and handling extremely flammable liquids.

"This collection of shortcomings demonstrates that there "Companies working with hazardous substances must take extreme care at all times and in all aspects of their operations."

This is the latest in a series of major safety incidents at AWE’s sites at Aldermaston and Burghfield. The work at AWE covers the entire life cycle of nuclear warheads; from initial concept, assessment and design, through to component manufacture and assembly, in-service support, and finally decommissioning and disposal. The company is managed for the Ministry of Defence (MOD) through a contractor-operated arrangement.

The Nuclear Information Service reports that documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the closure last year of the A45 uranium components facility at Aldermaston due to corrosion was classified as a major incident.

The A45 facility, one of the largest nuclear production facilities at the site carrying out higher risk operations with radioactive materials, is currently working on a production programme for highly enriched uranium fuel for the Royal Navy's Astute class submarines.

In October 2012 AWE reported to the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) that a number of columns in the building had been categorised as being in either “poor” or “bad” condition, and that fissile operations in the affected area had been suspended. The significance of the incident was described as “major” by AWE staff and the incident was rated as a scale 2 incident on the IAEA International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) because of its impact on nuclear 'defence in depth' safety arrangements.

The facility was closed and the ONR issued a formal Improvement Notice on AWE. The company is now working on proposals to remedy the structural defects in the building before it can reopen.

ONR has expressed concern that similar corrosion problems may exist in steelwork in other buildings at the 750-acre site, and has ordered a site-wide structural survey of buildings of a similar age.  The regulator is also conducting its own independent investigation to establish whether further enforcement action is warranted against the contractors responsible for operating the Establishment for failing to maintain building structures properly.

ONR also wrote to the company in 2011 raising concerns following the discovery of degradation in concrete structures in the warhead assembly/disassembly facility at Burghfield.

Other incidents include a fire in a machine shop plant room at Aldermaston on April 12, 2012, caused by the ignition of grease in an overheated ventilation motor. Less than a month before this incident another fire broke out at Burghfield caused by an electrical fault in a space heater in a prefabricated office building used to control access to the Burghfield nuclear licensed site area. 

AWE said that on-site firefighters have been called to fifteen fires since the August 2010 blaze, which left one member of staff with minor injuries. One of the incidents took place in a changing room in a former nuclear processing facility which was undergoing the final phase of decommissioning. 

A recent review of nuclear safety undertaken by ONR reported that AWE is currently undertaking a programme of work to underwrite its approach to nuclear fire safety. ONR's report notes that AWE had “not elaborated” on fault sequences initiated by fires that could lead to a loss of nuclear containment and result in “potentially significant” leaks of radioactivity.

Around one billion pounds each year is spent on the building programme for new infrastructure at AWE –  competing with Crossrail to  be the biggest construction programme currently underway in the UK.  The building programme, part of the Nuclear Weapons Capability Sustainment Programme, has been under way since 2005 and will continue into the 2020s with the aim of ensuring that the UK retains the capability to develop and manufacture nuclear weapons.

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