“Numerous difficulties” were experienced by agencies involved in fighting a serious fire at the Berkshire factory where Britain's nuclear warheads are made because of the security status of the site and the time of day the fire broke out, according to a fire service debrief report for the incident- which is available for download at the bottom of this article.
The report, released by the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service following a request under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that the emergency response to the fire was hampered by poor communications, limited resources, and delays in allowing firefighters onto the site.
The incident, which happened on 3 August 2010 in an explosives facility at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston, was described at the time as a “relatively small fire” by AWE's then Chief Executive, Robin McGill. However, the report indicates that because water jets were having a limited affect and because of the risks from hazardous substances, firefighters made the decision to retreat behind a safety cordon 400 metres from the building and leave the fire to burn out on its own.
The debrief report states that firefighters were requested to attend the fire without knowing full details of the incident, and it was only by accidentally overhearing a background conversation during a telephone call that RBFRS control personnel discovered that explosives were involved.
Fire hydrants on the AWE site were found to be “inefficient” as a result of “a mistake with the opening and closing of sluice valves by a maintenance contractor”, and a special high volume pump had to be brought in from London to provide enough water to fight the fire.
AWE's own on-site responders were ill-prepared to deal with the blaze, which started just after 9 pm and burned thoughout the night. Numbers of Ministry of Defence police officers on the base at that time of day were said to be “limited” and there was only one control operator at the on-site AWE fire station, who was “overwhelmed by the demands of the incident and unable to effectively provide the information required”.
Liaison and communications with Ministry of Defence police and on-site private security was “poor”, leading to delays of up to an hour in allowing fire-fighting equipment access to the site. Radios used by AWE's own firefighting team operated on different frequencies to those used by RBFRS personnel, adding to communication difficulties, and in the later stages of the incident AWE's emergency managers attempted to reduce the safety cordon without the knowledge of the fire service incident commander.
Nuclear Information Service Director Peter Burt said: “The report makes it crystal clear that this was far from being the 'relatively small fire' that AWE's Chief Executive described afterwards to members of the local liaison committee for the site.
“The fire required a major response from the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service, which was unfortunately made more complicated by the inadequate numbers of staff on site, over-zealous security, and AWE's failure to maintain fire hydrant systems.
The brave firefighters who attended the blaze were let down by failures and shortcomings in AWE's own safety arrangements”.
NIS has sent copies of the report to the Health and Safety Executive and to the Chair of AWE's own internal review into the fire and has asked for action to be taken to address the weaknesses in AWE's emergency procedures.
AWE has issued the following statement about the fire service report:
“AWE took prompt action to deal with the fire in the conventional explosives area at Aldermaston on 3 August 2010, following standard procedures agreed with safety regulators and the emergency services. We are committed to learning all available lessons from the incident.
“The Company commissioned an independently led investigation into the cause of the fire and we expect to report the findings to the AWE Local Liaison Committee within the next few weeks as well as making them publically available”.
At a recent public meeting in Tadley at which the fire was discussed the site director at the Atomic Weapons Establishment admitted that: “It was a very significant event. It came as a shock to us and we take it extremely seriously.”
In response to our report, the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service made the following comments:
"With regard to the statement issued today by the Nuclear Information Service, references to information from Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service (RBFRS) relate to a Freedom of Information request received by RBFRS in August 2010.
"Some of this information then appeared in the national and local media. Unfortunately, much of the original information in the documents was misinterpreted which led to misleading reports in the media.
"This was not a major incident. It was dealt with according to the operational protocols governing any RBFRS response to an incident at AWE. These include the use of resources from other fire and rescue services as necessary. There were no significant problems with either the tactics or the overall management of this incident. RBFRS carried out no firefighting action, its role was to provide tactical advice and support for AWE where required. Additional resources were on scene for use only in the event of any fire spread to additional buildings and this was not the case".
Download a copy of the Incident Debrief Report for the August 2010 fire at AWE Aldermaston here: