Heavy snowfalls which hit the south of England in January 2010 brought the region grinding to a halt, but despite havoc and hardship the nation put on a brave face and people everywhere pulled together to overcome the bad weather.
AWE's staff magazine, 'Inside AWE', wrote a stirring account of how AWE staff had cheerfully risen to the occasion to beat the freeze, and the company's Chief Executive, Robin McGill, told employees how proud he was of their efforts, saying “I've heard countless uplifting stories of staff going the extra mile, over and above the call of duty, and this is very much appreciated”. Thanks to the efforts of AWE staff “the business continued to run smoothly, programme delivery was maintained, and safe, secure, and clean was top of the agenda”.
Following a request under the Freedom of Information Act, NIS has recently obtained copies of AWE's Abnormal Event reports for the snowy spell which tell a rather different story. The reports record a worrying lack of organization on the part of AWE during the bad weather.
Not surprisingly, the snowy conditions created significant problems in getting about on the base. Alongside slips and trips on icy and snow covered paths, several reports describe difficulties with parking arrangements for staff who drove to work. A number of reports relate to cars which had been left parked on grass or walkways as some drivers gave up hunting for a clear parking space and left their vehicles wherever they could.
One member of staff reported that “after entering site, this was the most hazardous part of my journey”, and continued “I don't believe the snow clearance or parking management was adequate to safely accommodate the number of people who drove into site today.”
Another member of staff who slipped and twisted an ankle reports “feeling pressured to try and attend work” and said “we were asked to make the attempt in, therefore some effort should of been made to ensure a safer process of getting to the buildings.”
Slippery roads, inappropriate parking, and slow-moving traffic on site would have added to the difficulties for emergency services in obtaining access in the event of an incident at either of the two AWE sites during the freeze.
One report warned that: “Numerous phone calls have been coming through on the emergency 222 telephone in the firestation control room asking whether the site is open and asking what the weather is like. This ties up the emergency line for its intended purpose”.
Other reports comment on difficulties in entering and exiting buildings because of the build up of snow. Emergency exits blocked by snow had to be cleared by staff working in the buildings which had been affected, and one worker who had had to clear an emergency exit reported that “it is likely many other buildings were occupied with inoperable fire exits”.
Alarms triggered by the cold weather, water leaks in a number of buildings – including a control room area – and very low temperatures in some buildings added to the frustration of staff who had made the difficult journey in to work. Tempers began to fray in some quarters, with one worker calling a colleague a “dickhead” and another complaining about having his car blocked in by an “inconsiderate individual” who had been clearing snow.
More intriguingly – and more seriously – are two incident reports which have nothing to do with the cold weather. One relates to delivery of a Strontium 90 irradiator – a complex and potentially hazardous x-ray machine containing radioactive material which had been ordered from the USA. Instead of being delivered under supervision, the machine arrived at the AWE stores and was then left in a foyer area. Once it had been located, the equipment had to be placed in quarantine and AWE's Health Physics team had to be called in to examine the package and give clearance to move it.
The second report refers to the discovery of a set of old classified documents from the 1970s in the drawers of two cabinets. The drawers were removed to a secure room so that the documents could be reviewed, but when they were examined several small polythene bags containing small quantities of radioactive suspect content were discovered. The bags were removed by Health Physics staff for further investigation.
The Abnormal Event reports paint a picture of poor organisation and contingency planning for cold weather on the part of AWE. Fortunately the consequences were not as serious as during the heavy rainstorm in July 2007, when floodwater came close to overwhelming the AWE Burghfield site, resulting in a ‘near miss’ event and causing long-term disruption to operations. Nevertheless, AWE does not seem to have learnt much from the flooding, nor from the snowy spell which had occurred a few weeks earlier in December 2009 when many staff were stranded overnight at AWE.
A scanned copy of Abnormal Event reports for AWE for the period 5-10 January 2010 can be downloaded from Rapidshare. The document is 1.2 MB in size and will take around twenty seconds to download using broadband.