Atomic Weapons Establishment fire cover-up prompts call for greater safety disclosure

An MP has written to nuclear safety watchdogs to ask what steps will be taken to improve fire safety standards at Britain's nuclear weapon factories after it emerged that fire incidents at the Atomic Weapons Establishment have been hushed up.

The fires took place earlier this year at Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) sites in Berkshire where the UK's Trident nuclear warheads are manufactured and maintained. Neither local authorities, the press, nor the public were informed at the time that the fires had broken out.

Parliamentary Questions asked by Caroline Lucas MP have revealed that a fire broke out at AWE Aldermaston at approximately 17.30 hours on the evening of 12 April, caused by ignition of grease in an overheated ventilation motor in a plant room in a machine shop.

The fire was dealt with by AWE's on-site firefighters, but later the same evening the firefighters were called back again as the result of an alarm triggered by smoke in the building, apparently from a fire in the ventilation extractor unit. Fire appliances from the Royal Berkshire and Hampshire Fire and Rescue Services then attended the incident and remained on site to provide support to the AWE fire service.

A copy of the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service log for the incident (available for download at the end of this article) reveals that a number of the difficulties experienced when firefighters attended a blaze at an explosives handling facility at AWE Aldermaston in August 2010 were again encountered during the April 2012 incident. Log entries show that initially firefighters did not know whether there was a radiation risk from the fire and reveal that there was a “delay in appliances entering AWE A”.

Less than a month before this incident another fire broke out at AWE Burghfield, on 15 March 2012, caused by an electrical fault in a space heater in a prefabricated office building used to control access to the Burghfield nuclear licensed site area. Once again, the fire was extinguished by on-site firefighters.

AWE has admitted that on-site firefighters have been called to fifteen fires since the August 2010 blaze, which left one member of staff with minor injuries. One of the incidents took place in a changing room in a former nuclear processing facility which was undergoing the final phase of decommissioning. Other call-outs included fires in a car engine, an electric heater, a motor mower and extractor fans.

No public mention had been made about the April 12 Aldermaston fire by AWE or the Ministry of Defence, and news of the Burghfield incident was only made public in a quarterly site report published by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), the government regulator for the nuclear industry, at the end of June. Although the incident gave rise to adverse comments and correspondence from local residents on emergency preparedness, ONR concluded that “there was no requirement or perceived need for AWE to report the event more widely”.

A recent review of nuclear safety undertaken by ONR reported that AWE is currently undertaking a programme of work to underwrite its approach to nuclear fire safety, raising questions as to whether the fire-fighting capability at AWE sites is adequate. ONR's report notes that AWE had “not elaborated” on fault sequences initiated by fires that could lead to a loss of nuclear containment and result in “potentially significant” leaks of radioactivity.

Commenting on the fires, Caroline Lucas said: "AWE's neighbours have the right to know what is going on at AWE sites in order to feel confident that their safety is being given top priority".  The MP has written to the Office for Nuclear Regulation calling for greater transparency over disclosure of incidents such as the recent fires".

Download the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service and Office for Nuclear Regulation logs for the incident here: