Nuclear weapons factory operators plead guilty to breaking safety law following fire

The company which operates the factories where the UK's nuclear weapons are manufactured has pleaded guilty to breaking safety law 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 on 16 May to failing to ensure the safety of its employees in breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.  Two further charges under safety laws were dropped by the prosecution.

The charges 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.  

Bernard Thoroughgood QC, prosecuting on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive, described the incident as a “serious fire” which burnt for five hours, and told the court that 68 firefighters from four brigades attended the incident at its peak.

Mr Thoroughgood told the court that firefighters were not initially told that the burning building contained explosives and that they had difficulties in fighting the fire because of low water pressure caused by a poorly maintained fire hydrant on the site.  First aiders were initially unable to get to a casualty from the fire because of a locked gate and had to pass a burns kit over the fence to him.

The cause of the fire had not been established with certainty, but was thought to have been caused by a static discharge during an explosives manufacturing process when nitrocellulose was added to the solvent methyl ethyl ketone.  Mr Thoroughgood told the court that the risks from the process were "perfectly forseeable" and that concerns about the process had been raised within AWE as long ago as 1996 but were never addressed.

In response James Maxwell-Scott QC, defending AWE, said that although the safety breaches had added to the risks from the fire, AWE senior managers were not responsible for the cause of the fire and AWE took safety very seriously.

An internal investigation into the fire by Peter McIntyre, a member of AWE's Nuclear Safety Committee, identified a number of safety failures which contributed to the incident.  Mr McIntyre's  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”.

Mr 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 case has been adjourned for sentencing, which will take place on 28 May at Reading Crown Court.

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