Sellafield nuclear site a ‘poisonous mix of bullying and harassment’

By Jim Reed and Sarah MacKinlay
BBC News

picture captionSellafield in Cumbria is the biggest industrial site within the UK, using greater than 10,000 employees

A “toxic culture” of bullying and harassment at Sellafield might let critical security considerations go unreported, whistleblowers have instructed the BBC.

In a leaked letter, the nuclear site’s group for ethnic minority employees described “shocking stories” of racial abuse.

Other staff mentioned sexist and homophobic bullying had develop into routine.

Sellafield mentioned it was dedicated to eradicating unacceptable behaviour from the office.

A BBC investigation discovered:

  • Multiple claims of critical bullying and sexual harassment amongst its 10,000-strong workforce
  • Allegations of racial abuse outlined in a leaked letter to senior administration
  • Concerns concerning the working tradition on the site and the way it might influence nuclear security

“When I started working there, it quickly became apparent there was rampant bullying in the organisation,” mentioned Alison McDermott, a senior guide employed in 2017 to work on Sellafield’s equality technique.

She mentioned employees interviews and focus teams revealed critical allegations of sexual harassment on the sprawling site on the Cumbrian coast.

picture captionEmployees are demoralised, bullied and scared to talk out, Alison McDermott says

“Young women were saying they were in tears after work because of the way they were sexually harassed,” she mentioned.

One interviewee mentioned she was requested in graphic phrases by a senior supervisor if she carried out sexual favours to win a latest promotion, based on McDermott.

In one inside e-mail seen by the BBC, a senior HR supervisor on the site described how an autistic worker had been known as a “mong” by her personal group chief.

“This is a nuclear site, where many employees are demoralised, bullied and scared to speak out,” Ms McDermott mentioned.

“You’ve got toxic materials and a toxic culture, if you put those two together then you’ve got a recipe for disaster.”

Ms McDermott’s contract with Sellafield was terminated in October 2018, days after she submitted an inside report crucial of the human assets division.

She is now taking her case to an employment tribunal alleging she was dismissed for whistleblowing. The nuclear site is contesting her allegations.

Largest plutonium retailer on the earth

Sellafield, the biggest nuclear site in Western Europe, reprocesses spent nuclear gasoline, splitting it into plutonium, uranium and waste.

More than 140 tonnes of plutonium are saved in large hangers, the largest civil stockpile of the steel on the earth.

Staff are tasked with decontaminating and dismantling the huge site which has been producing nuclear materials for the reason that Nineteen Fifties.

Sellafield is in the end owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), a non-departmental authorities physique.

It employs greater than 10,000 employees instantly with hundreds extra working not directly by means of contractors.

The BBC has additionally seen a letter despatched in September 2020 by Sellafield’s community of ethnic minority employees to the agency’s board, cataloguing a collection of 27 racist incidents.

One worker mentioned they have been strolling by means of the site when a driver of a passing automotive shouted “racist taunts” earlier than dashing off.

“I reported it but after a cursory investigation I was told nothing could be done to find and deal with the culprit,” the employees member mentioned.

picture copyrightGetty Images

picture captionSellafield is guarded by the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, a specialist police unit

The letter comprises a number of examples of offensive racial slurs getting used brazenly on the site.

One employee mentioned his teacher at a coaching course instructed the category the principle menace to the site was “bearded men in flip-flops”.

“He then singled me out and mockingly looked under the table at my shoes to the delight of the class,” the employee wrote.

“I happen to be a bearded Muslim man. [The instructor] went on to say: ‘They [Muslims] come over on boats, we feed them, we clothe them, we house them and all they want to do is blow us up.’ None of my colleagues intervened or supported me.”

The letter calls on the Sellafield board to just accept the organisation has a downside with racism and commit to raised schooling and coaching.

“We fear that if we complain, we could be branded a troublemaker and mark ourselves out to be got rid of. It is exhausting that we must be wary of those who we spend most of our waking hours with,” the letter mentioned.

Karl Connor, a senior supervisor at Sellafield for greater than 13 years, resigned in January after struggling a breakdown he mentioned was prompted, partly, by bullying.

“I think there’s a massive problem with bullying at Sellafield and I think there always will be as long as the company isn’t prepared to do anything about it,” he mentioned.

He mentioned there have been some “fantastic people” engaged on the site however the working tradition could possibly be tough to cope with.

“If you want to earn a good wage and live in that part of the world, then you have to work at Sellafield or in one of the supply chain companies,” he mentioned.

“The best thing for most people is not to rock the boat, to keep their heads down and just put up with it.”

Mr Connor is now within the course of of bringing a incapacity discrimination case in opposition to the corporate.

‘Fear of reprisals’

A piece setting the place employees are handled with dignity and respect is an “essential trait of a healthy nuclear safety culture”, based on the World Association of Nuclear Operators, an organisation shaped within the aftermath of the Chernobyl catastrophe – of which Sellafield is a member.

An inside employees survey commissioned by the agency in 2018 and seen by the BBC confirmed 54% of the workers who stuffed within the ballot agreed they “could speak out about doing the right thing without fear of reprisals”, a fall of 11 share factors for the reason that earlier survey in 2016.

Sellafield administration mentioned employees surveys “brought focus” to considerations about bullying and harassment on the site.

“We did not ignore this, or seek to cover it up,” mentioned a spokesperson. “We confronted the issue, proactively shared information with employees, and developed a company-wide improvement programme. This work is continuing.”

The BBC has additionally spoken to a quantity of former and present members of employees who had considerations about security on the site.

In one case a senior member of the underwater diving unit claimed he was bullied and sidelined after highlighting staffing ranges he felt have been unsafe. He mentioned after he retired Sellafield did enhance the quantity of folks on the group.

picture copyrightGetty Images

In an incident from December 2017, a employee was uncovered to plutonium after a bag of nuclear waste was opened in a workshop used to restore contaminated equipment.

An inside security report seen by the BBC blamed a “deficiency in leadership standards” for the accident, a close to repeat of a related case in 2015 during which no-one was harm.

The report mentioned an alarm meant to measure radioactive contamination ranges within the air was triggered, but it surely had develop into “custom and practice” to contemplate the alerts a nuisance by employees.

The BBC has seen redacted emails launched beneath the liberty of data act, apparently between folks concerned within the subsequent investigation. A quantity seek advice from claims of a cowl up and allegations of intimidating and threatening behaviour.

“It was a serious incident and not to be taken lightly,” mentioned one serving Sellafield worker who’s at present answerable for nuclear security.

“I’ve seen a steady deterioration in standards in my career. There are things that are not right but if you complain about it, nothing ever happens.”

The security report mentioned new measures have been put in place to stop a related accident sooner or later, with employees reminded of the checks they should make in ‘radiologically managed areas’.

A Sellafield spokesperson mentioned: “There is no place for bullying and harassment at Sellafield. We do not tolerate it and where we find it, we take action.”

The spokesperson mentioned the corporate was working to enhance its processes so staff can trust that when points are raised, they’re handled.

“We closely monitor our progress, including seeking the views of our workforce through working groups and surveys,” he mentioned.

“We accept we have more work to do in this area, but we remain as committed as ever to eradicating unacceptable behaviour from our workplace.”

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