Questions asked about asbestos risks following nuclear factory fire

The Nuclear Information Service (NIS) has written to the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) to ask what precautions have been taken to protect the public from a suspected release of asbestos following a fire at AWE Aldermaston earlier this month.

AWE's public statements at the time of the fire stressed that the incident led to no release of radioactive material, but made no mention of potential risks from asbestos. News of the problem only came to light through a report in a national Sunday newspaper, which reported that the fire had resulted in asbestos contamination at AWE Aldermaston.

Asbestos was a common construction material in the 1950s and 1960, when many of the buildings on the AWE site were built. The substance can usually be managed safely but if it is disturbed it can break up into tiny fibres which can cause serious lung diseases.

NIS has written to AWE's Infrastructure Director, Andrew Jupp pressing for answers to questions about the scale of the release of asbestos, the measures being taken to deal with the release, and potential risks to responders who dealt with the fire on 3 August and the general public.  A copy of our letter to Mr Jupp together with his reply can be downloaded at the bottom of the page.

NIS Director Peter Burt said: “If the proper clean-up procedures are followed there is little risk to the public following asbestos exposures from large-scale fires, but it is important to ensure that any contaminated areas are properly sealed off and cleaned up, and that anyone at risk of contamination is warned about the possible dangers.

“So far AWE have said nothing about what they intend to do to tackle this problem and protect the public and their staff from a material which can be deadly if it is allowed to spread.

“AWE has a duty in law to protect people from exposure to asbestos fibres, and advice from the government's Health Protection Agency stresses the need to manage risks by keeping the public informed.

“AWE must learn that the best strategy for dealing with incidents like this and reassuring the public is not to hush up problems, but to be open and transparent about them and explain what action has been taken to deal with them.”

In response, AWE issued a press release with the following statement:

"While the structure of the fire-affected building did contain some asbestos which has sustained damage, this will be dealt with in accordance with established safety procedures. However, thorough sampling – both on and off-site – has confirmed that any asbestos was localised to the immediate vicinity of the building and did not affect staff or members of the public".

To read NIS's letter to AWE and the reply we received please click on the links below.


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