UK Nuclear Company Fined for 2010 Fire, Injury

A fireball resulted when an employee mixed two volatile materials together in a bucket, burning him and causing serious damage to the building where he worked.

A company that maintains Britain's nuclear stockpile, as well as builds and maintains warheads for Trident submarine-launched missiles, has been ordered to pay about $431,000 in fines and costs related to a 2010 incident where a worker handling volatile materials was burned when they ignited, Britain's Health and Safety Executive announced. The Atomic Weapons Establishment PLC had accepted responsibility two weeks ago, when the company entered a guilty plea to violating two sections of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 in connection with the incident at its Aldermaston base.

AWE's Dr. Graeme Nicholson, director of Science, Technology and Production, gave a statement outside the court May 15: "AWE always takes its health and safety responsibilities extremely seriously. We accept that on 3 August 2010, we did not meet our usually high standards. We regret the occurrence of the fire. We are sorry that a member of our staff was injured and for the disruption caused to local residents. The company immediately instigated a fully independently chaired investigation; the results of which we shared with our Local Liaison Committee and members of the public. We accepted all the recommendations.

"Over the last three years, we have worked hard to implement these recommendations and those made by the Health and Safety Executive. We are pleased that the HSE has acknowledged our commitment to addressing these issues and the improvements we have made. In respect of explosives safety, the HSE's overall assessment positions us as 'one of the best in the UK.' Lessons have been learnt, and we remain committed to achieving the highest standards in safety performance. We will continue to work openly and collaboratively with all our regulators."

HSE reported the company has been ordered to pay more than £280,000 in fines and costs for the Aug. 3, 2010, incident in which Ashley Emery, 29, suffered burns to his left arm and face. The agency said he was breaking dry nitrocellulose into a plastic bucket that contained methyl ethyl ketone as part of the process of producing a lacquer. "Mr. Emery moved away from the mixture, removed his respirator, and returned to have a better look at things, at which point the contents of the bucket ignited and produced a fireball. He managed to flee before the fire took hold, spread and seriously damaged the building," according to HSE's report. "The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigated the fire and established that had AWE Plc recognised all the hazards of working with dry NC, and implemented appropriate safeguards, then the incident could have been avoided. The company possessed data sheets identifying the potential risks associated with the use of NC and MEK. These provided direct guidance about situations to be avoided when using the substances, but insufficient heed was paid to them. HSE inspectors also identified issues with the storage of unnecessary hazardous materials in the manufacturing area, and the fact a number of explosives processes were taking place at the same time."

AWE was ordered to pay £80,258 in costs and £2,500 in compensation to the injured man.

"The fire could have caused multiple casualties and it was entirely preventable had better control systems been in place," HSE Inspector Dave Norman said. "The failure to instigate such controls was dependent on AWE identifying potential hazards and risks, all of which were well documented, but that simply did not happen. The building and equipment within it did not comply with the-then current standards required for storing and handling explosives, which are potentially sensitive to static electricity, nor for storing and handling extremely flammable liquids. The risks associated with the lacquer preparation were not fully recognised by the company. This was compounded by a decision to run numerous explosives processes at the same time and in the same building, which is completely unacceptable by industry standards.

"We also found that the personal protective equipment provided for employees, principally a lack of flame retardant coveralls, was inadequate. This collection of shortcomings demonstrates that there were failures of supervision, monitoring and auditing over time, including in relation to the conducting, validating, and approval of risk assessments."

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