Health and Safety Executive to prosecute Atomic Weapons Establishment over fire

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The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has decided to prosecute AWE plc, the private company which operates the Atomic Weapons Establishment, following a fire in an explosives handling facility at AWE Aldermaston in August 2010.

AWE plc has  been summoned to appear at Reading Magistrates Court on 6 August 2012 to face charges of failing to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of its employees; failing to take appropriate measures to limit the extent of fire or explosion regarding the storage of explosives; and failing to ensure that suitable personal protective equipment was provided to its employees.

The fire, which took place on the night of 3 August 2010, 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.  Firefighters from the Berkshire and Hampshire fire services attended the incident, which led to concerns about the dispersal of asbestos from the damaged building.

The decision to prosecute AWE plc, which has a 25 year contract to manage and operate AWE sites on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, followed an HSE investigation into the incident.  Following the investigation HSE took independent legal advice on whether to take enforcement action against the company.

A report on the fire prepared for AWE in 2011 by Peter McIntyre, a member of AWE's Nuclear Safety Committee, identified a number of safety failures which contributed to the incident.  The 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”.

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.