Nuclear weapons factory operators fined £200,000 for safety breaches

The company which operates the factories where the UK's nuclear weapons are manufactured has been fined £200,000 for breaches of safety laws following a fire in which a member of staff was injured.

AWE plc, which operates the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), pleaded guilty at Reading Crown Court to failing to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of its employees following a charge under section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

On 28 May the company was fined £200,000 by Judge Richard Parkes QC, and also ordered to pay £80,258 in legal costs and £2,500 in compensation to an employee who was injured during the fire.

The charge followed a fire which broke out in an explosives handling facility at the AWE Aldermaston site in Berkshire on the evening of 3 August 2010.   The incident left a member of AWE staff with burns to his face and arm and required the evacuation of a number of local residents and closure of roads around the site as safety precautions.

Passing sentence, Judge Parkes said that the failings which led to the fire “give rise to serious concern” and were “attributable at least in part” to AWE management.

The judge found that:

  • The production process for explosive nitrocellulose lacquer which led to the explosion “had nor been authorised by the Work Control Centre, and in any event should not have been undertaken when, as was the case, high explosive was already being manufactured  nearby in the building”.
  • It was “clear beyond doubt” that either the Health and Safety Executive Licence or the Explosives Safety Order for the building which caught fire was breached – and both were probably breached.
  • The AWE Fire and Rescue Service were not initially aware that the building contained explosives, and not knowing the risk of detonation, they approached the building.  Had the explosives detonated when the emergency services were close by, “the building would have been destroyed and there might have been multiple casualties”
  • A fire could have occurred during the preparation of any previous lacquer batch, and “no credit attaches to AWE for the fact that it had not happened before”.
  • There were “measures that could have been taken to eliminate or greatly reduce” the risk of the electrostatic discharge that was considered to have been the most likely cause of ignition for the fire – and the actual taking of these steps “would have undoubtedly reduced the risk of ignition without significant difficulty or expense”.
  • Overalls intended to protect workers during the lacquer manufacturing process were not resistant to chemical splash or fire, and the injured worker's injuries “would probably have been less serious had he been wearing coveralls of the flame-resistant kind”.
  • There was a “degree of carelessness” in the storage of high explosive in the building while explosive manufacture was in place – which “ran counter to basic principles for work with explosives, and could easily have been remedied”.

In mitigation, the judge said that AWE generally had a good health and safety record, had promptly admitted responsibility for the fire and co-operated with the Health and Safety Executive investigation into its causes, and had taken the necessary remedial action to prevent a similar incident.

Dave Norman, Explosives Inspector for the Health and Safety Executive who led the investigation into the fire said that the fire “could have caused multiple casualties and was entirely preventable”.    The fire could have been avoided if the company had heeded safety guidance, he added.

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