AWE fire incident report highlights safety failings







Newly released information about the recent fire at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston reveals that AWE failed to take key actions that could have helped firefighters bring the blaze under control.

The fire raged through an explosives manufacturing facility for four hours on the night of August 3rd before it was finally brought under control by firefighters. At the peak 95 fire service personnel attended the blaze and 20 fire appliances were present.

A copy of the incident log for the fire (available below to download), released to Nuclear Information Service by the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service (RBFRS) under the Freedom of Information Act, shows that:

  • AWE initially advised the RBFRS that it did not require any assistance in fighting the fire.
  • Fire fighters from RBFRS apparently first learnt that the burning building contained explosives only when they overhead a radio message from AWE asking how much explosives were in the building.

  • Precious minutes were wasted as AWE refused to allow access onto the site for firefighters bringing equipment to tackle the blaze.

  • The scale of the incident was so serious that RBFRS had to advise neighbouring fire services that they were unable to provide any support to them, if needed, under mutual aid schemes.

  • Incident controllers were concerned that so many appliances were needed at the AWE blaze that only one pump would be available to tackle any subsequent fires across the whole of Reading.

  • Specialist high volume pumping equipment and extra hose lengths had to be brought in from London to help fight the fire.

The incident log also shows that firefighters were aware that the burning building had an asbestos sheet roof and were concerned that asbestos was spreading on and off site. AWE made no mention of asbestos – a hazardous substance – in its public communications about the fire and provided no warnings or information to the public about the material, stating only that the fire had no radiological consequences.

Further information about the fire released by the Ministry of Defence in response to Parliamentary Questions asked by Caroline Lucas MP has revealed that, although a comprehensive multi-agency off-site emergency plan had been prepared by West Berkshire Council for dealing with emergencies at AWE, the plan was not put into operation to deal with the blaze. The Green Party MP's questioning has also exposed three further events at AWE since 2006 which the RBFRS was called to attend – all hushed up by AWE at the time.

Peter Burt, Director of the independent Nuclear Information Service said: “The fire on August 3rd was handled in a very questionable way by a company which boasts that public safety is its top priority.

"The incident log released by the fire service shows that AWE's obsession with secrecy and security resulted in delays which could have placed both the public and the brave firefighters who attended the incident at risk.

“AWE must explain why, even though it knew that asbestos had been released as a result of the fire, it took no steps to inform the public about this and covered the problem up in its media response to the fire.”

Download the RBFRS incident log and report for the AWE fire here:


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