Campaign Against Depleted Uranium

Introduction | News | Information | Resources | Affiliate | Action | Links | Contact

Report on the Fire at Royal Ordnance Special Metals

On 8th February 1999 a serious fire broke out at Royal Ordnance Speciality Metals at Featherstone near Wolverhampton, when a piece of depleted uranium swarf ignited mineral oil, and the resulting running fluid fire spread to 200-300 wooden pallets stored nearby. The fire burned out of control for hours and dense clouds of smoke rose high into the sky. DU is both toxic and radioactive. Yet all official statements, both at the time and subsequently, insist that there was no risk to fire fighters or the public, and that only very slight traces of DU contamination were detected within the building and where fire crews gained access. This is in dramatic contrast with Environment Agency evidence about DU given in a successful prosecution (29.11.99) at Hemel Hempstead of Jenny Seward, a company director involved in illegal dumping. Regarding fire during machining operations, the Case Summary states, "Any fire so created would produce radioactive particles of uranium oxide which would be inhaled by anyone exposed to the smoke from the fire thus exposed to the risks of cancer described above"

Main issues of concern

There seems to be no single body responsible for pulling together all the facts: there was no requirement for an emergency plan for the site. The Environment Agency (EA) has produced a public report only 2 sides long, the Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service has written an internal report for its own purposes, and the NRPB is producing a report which can be released only by permission of Royal Ordnance Speciality Metals, (ROSM). ROSM's own report will not be made public. The Health & Safety Executive report is not complete yet.

In April the Dr Othen for the EA said that they assumed that, "When the facility is decontaminated and reconstructed ROSM will wish to resume business". He indicated that the Agency is in a difficult situation because of the national security aspect of work at ROSM and that he saw no ground for removing ROSM's licences. However: A condition of operation is that Depleted Uranium (DU) is kept away from flammable materials. It seems clear that ROSM breached its licence by storing 200-300 wooden pallets near to the machine where the fire started. The fact that DU swarf fell outside the mineral oil bath would suggest unsatisfactory practices in the machine room.

The fact that burning DU ignited the oil, thus causing a running fluid fire, which spread to the pallets in the adjoining area, again indicates that safety precautions were not adequate. Powder specifically for extinguishing DU fires was stored in wheelbarrows at the far end of the machine room, in an area which the firemen could not reach, because of the fire! Again, this would seem to indicate totally unacceptable work practices.

At present, despite widespread inquiries, and information from fire-fighters, it is not possible to make a clear summary of the various tests for radiation which were conducted. Bodies involved were the Environment Agency from Lichfield (Graham Macro), the NRPB from Leeds, and the County Analyst at the request of the fire fighters.

Although the Environment Agency claims that Mr. Macro was on site at 11.30 (i.e. within 45 minutes of the alarm), and allegedly started "preliminary monitoring", and although the Agency's public report (30.3.99) says that he "liaised with Emergency Services", this sits oddly alongside the evidence of fire fighters, as given in their internal report. This describes fire fighters, concerned about a possible radioactive release, attempting to access the Company Contamination meter at 11.34, but being "summoned out due to deteriorating situation."

Their concerns remained, and after repeated requests for help & information re. radioactive contamination, at 12.50 they requested the attendance of the County Analyst with monitoring equipment. He was instructed to test for gamma (NB not all that relevant in the case of DU) radiation. Fire control was notified at 13.58 that testing has finally taken place.

It is still not clear how many sets of tests were taken, and at what time. As all accounts have the fire originating with burning DU swarf, it seems incontestable that some radiation must have been given off during the early stages of combustion. WHY were early contamination checks not made?

Another area which is not clear is how much DU was actually involved in the fire. The Fire Brigade Report has Mr. Macro telling a meeting of West Midlands Regional Advisory Committee on Incidents Involving Radiation (10.2.99) that "approximately 10% of the 200-500 kg of DU could have been released in the fire..".

The "national security" aspect of ROSM's work is presumably the cause of Mr. Macro's coyness about quantities. A further complication in trying to find any agency which puts the public's safety as top priority is the fact that the NRPB (letter to me 19.4.99) is under contract to ROSM ,"and any findings are strictly their property." We really have to wonder whether there is information, release of which ROSM has vetoed.

Increasingly concerned about possible health effects from working next to ROSM, officers from Featherstone prison sent urine and soil samples for analysis to Dr. Hari Sharma at Waterloo University Canada. Before these samples arrived, and just before he was to give an interview to Mike Nicholson of ITN, Dr. Sharma was relieved of his university post, after 30 years. The prison officers' samples have disappeared.
For further information contact : Madeline Haigh of West Midlands CND on 0121 329 3252

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

From CADU News 3: Winter 1999/2000

Read more articles about The Nuclear Industry and the Production of Depleted Uranium

Introduction | News | Information | Resources | Affiliate | Action | Links | Contact

Page last updated: January 28, 2003