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Fires, false alarms and chemical leaks reported at AWE Aldermaston
A CATALOGUE of fires, false alarms and chemical leaks at the Atomic Weapons Establishment has emerged in information released to The Gazette.
Over 11 years between 2000 and 2011, Berkshire fire crews received more than 2,000 calls about incidents at AWE in Aldermaston, occurring at an average rate of more than four per week.
Call-outs were received after an explosion, gas leaks, staff being overcome by fumes and fires breaking out in a radiation building.
The Freedom of Information Request to Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service has also revealed that an unexploded shell or mortar bomb was discovered in 2008, necessitating a visit from the bomb squad.
The vast majority of the 2,252 calls that RBFRS received were from automatic fire alarms and were not attended by the fire service.
But records show that 158 fires broke out on site between April 1, 2000 and August 5, 2011, most commonly starting in bins, ashtrays and kitchens.
Fires in the radiation building and in high voltage electrical equipment were logged by RBFRS in 2006 and in February 2008, four personnel at AWE were overcome by fumes after a fire.
Peter Burt, of the Nuclear Information Service, said the information was worrying.
He said: “It shows that AWE regularly gets it wrong, but the vast majority of these incidents have been covered up by the company and not reported publicly.”
He said greater oversight was needed.
AWE faced criticism after a major blaze on August 3, 2010, which burned for nine hours and required nearby residents to be evacuated.
But the RBRFS log shows that just days after the fire, which broke out when a solvent used in making explosives burst into flames, two further fires were recorded – on August 5, 2010 and August 16, 2010. They were logged by RBFRS, though they attended neither incident.
A spokesperson from RBFRS said that the level of calls from AWE was “routine”.
Nicole Targett, corporate communications manager, said: “All calls are logged by us for information purposes. We train with the AWE Fire and Rescue Service but attend actual incidents there very rarely.”
Of the 2,252 calls, 1,851 were triggered by automatic alarms, the majority of which did not require firefighters to attend.
This is an average of more than three automatic fire alarm calls a week, in addition to the other calls, which include reports of smoke being seen and gas being smelled.
Mrs Targett said: “We do not attend AFAs at any premises, including AWE, unless they are reported to us as a confirmed fire.”
Chemical leaks and spillages at the top-secret facility were also revealed in the RBFRS data, which details four chlorine leaks and spills and one nitric acid spill, which was contained by AWE staff.
A leak of the chemical isocyanate in August 2000 left two AWE staff needing treatment on-site.
Six suspect packages were also flagged up to RBFRS over the period, including one that turned out to be a packed lunch and another, a bag of clothing.
Only weeks ago, The Gazette reported that Army bomb disposal experts were called in after a suspect package was found at AWE on January 10.
AWE’s Aldermaston site covers 880 acres and the company employs 4,500 staff across Aldermaston and Burghfield.
A spokesman for AWE said: “AWE's fire and rescue service maintains an excellent working relationship with the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service.
“Under our robust incident response arrangements, RBFRS are notified every time a reported incident or alarm is being investigated by the AWE fire and rescue service.
“In the vast majority of cases, no further action is required by RBFRS.
“AWE operates large and complex industrial sites and deals with a range of potentially hazardous materials.
“The number of incidents reflects this, but the majority of them are relatively minor, and are dealt with quickly and effectively by our own highly trained fire and rescue service.”
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