NIS calls for independent inquiry into fire at Atomic Weapons Establishment

The Nuclear Information Service (NIS) has written to the Health and Safety Executive calling for an independent inquiry into last night's fire at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston.

According to a report from the BBC a fire broke out in a building within the explosives area of the site last night. AWE has stated that there were “no radiological implications” as a result of the fire, but a number of local residents were evacuated from their homes to overnight hotel accommodation.

AWE report that one member of staff was injured in the blaze, and road closures in the area following the fire caused traffic chaos during the Wednesday morning rush-hour.

The fire is thought to have occurred in the explosives area of the Aldermaston site, where there is a risk that a 'domino effect' of explosives igniting each other can lead to a rapid spread of fire. It raises questions about regulatory standards at AWE, where a number of operations are not regulated by the Health and Safety Executive but are instead controlled by the Ministry of Defence itself through a secretive process of internal regulation.

Peter Burt, Director of the Reading-based Nuclear Information Service said “The incident was serious enough for the fire service to be called out, local residents to be evacuated, and local roads cordoned off. It seems that we came within a hair's breadth of everyone's nightmare scenario.

“AWE handles radioactive materials, explosives, and hazardous chemicals and despite extensive safety precautions on the site, this incident shows that accidents can and do happen.

“There is no room for complacency and last night's accident is a reminder that AWE poses considerable risks to local communities.

“We wish to see a full independent inquiry held to investigate this incident as soon as possible. The results of the inquiry must be made public so that local people can see that lessons have been learnt and that their safety is AWE's number one priority.”

In May the Defence Environment and Safety Board, the Ministry of Defence's top-level body charged with overseeing the safety of all military activities highlighted the MoD's poor safety record and warned that planned cuts in defence spending will “test safety management” and add to existing pressures on safety.

On nuclear safety issues, the Chairman of the Defence Nuclear and Environmental Safety Board (DNESB) reported that “None of the DNESB’s issues reflect an immediate safety or environmental concern but, taken together they present a risk that it will become increasingly difficult to maintain that the defence nuclear programmes are being managed with due regard for the protection of the workforce, the public and the environment. The key areas of concern for the medium term are the sufficiency of resources, both money and staff complement, and the maintenance of a suitable cadre of suitably competent staff (RN, MOD civilians and industry partners)”.

 Click below to read a copy of our letter to the Health and Safety Executive.