A NUCLEAR weapons company will be punished after a fireball erupted in the face of a Basingstoke man.

Ashley Emery, 29, was mixing chemicals in a bucket for the manufacture of explosives when the explosion happened in a building at the Atomic Weapons Establishment, in Aldermaston, leaving him with burns on his left arm and face.

The fire on August 3, 2010, took five hours to control and led to the evacuation of staff and nearby residents, some of whom were put up in hotels in Aldermaston and Basingstoke.

Last Thursday, at Reading Crown Court, AWE plc admitted one count of breaching the Health and Safety At Work Act 1974. The case was adjourned for sentencing at a later date.

After the evidence had been heard, Dr Graeme Nicholson, AWE director science, technology and production, admitted outside court that the firm did not meet “its usually high standards” on the evening of the incident.

He said: “We are sorry that a member of our staff was injured, and for the disruption caused to local residents.

“Lessons have been learned and we remain committed to achieving the highest standards in safety performance. We will continue to work openly and collaboratively with all our regulators.”

The court heard the fire occurred in a building used for the storage of explosives, which was at least 1km away from any radioactive materials on the nuclear warhead complex.

Bernard Thorogood, prosecuting on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive, said an investigation into the fire revealed a “constellation of failures” relating to health and safety regulations which put employees at risk.

He said these included:

• The building where the fire took place was being used both to store and mix high explosives, which breached the building's explosives licence

• Workers wore overalls which carried labels which read “keep away from flames”, despite working with highly-flammable materials

• Firefighters from the complex's own fire service were unaware the building contained explosives when they first approached it

• Paramedics had to pass a medical burns pack through a gate because staff who fled the building did not have keys to unlock a gate

• Training for workers was inadequate and they were in their fifth hour of overtime when the fire started.

Mr Thorogood said: “The prosecution's case is that management, at a more senior level than those in the building doing a particular job, are culpable and at fault.”

He added it was lucky that the fire did not spread in a different direction and detonate explosives stored in the building, which he said could have caused “multiple casualties and widespread destruction”.

The court heard Mr Emery recovered from his injuries, but needed medication for anxiety and had not felt able to return as an explosives worker.

James Maxwell-Scott, defending, said the company accepted there had been a flaw in health and safety procedures, but said any link with senior management was “pure speculation”.

He added the flaw did not fall well below the standard required, and the risk of detonation of explosives was low.

The most likely cause of the fire was an electrostatic discharge, which could have been generated by the plastic bags and scoops used in the handling of chemicals, the court heard.

Judge Richard Parkes QC is likely to pass sentence before the end of the month.