A “toxic culture” of bullying and harassment at Sellafield could let serious safety concerns go unreported, whistleblowers have told the BBC.
In a leaked letter, the nuclear site’s group for ethnic minority staff described “shocking stories” of racial abuse.
Other workers said sexist and homophobic bullying had become routine.
Sellafield said it was committed to eradicating unacceptable behaviour from the workplace.
A BBC investigation found:
- Multiple claims of serious bullying and sexual harassment among its 10,000-strong workforce
- Allegations of racial abuse outlined in a leaked letter to senior management
- Concerns about the working culture at the site and how it could impact nuclear safety
“When I started working there, it quickly became apparent there was rampant bullying in the organisation,” said Alison McDermott, a senior consultant hired in 2017 to work on Sellafield’s equality strategy.
She said staff interviews and focus groups revealed serious allegations of sexual harassment at the sprawling site on the Cumbrian coast.
“Young women were saying they were in tears after work because of the way they were sexually harassed,” she said.
One interviewee said she was asked in graphic terms by a senior manager if she performed sexual favours to win a recent promotion, according to McDermott.
In one internal email seen by the BBC, a senior HR manager at the site described how an autistic employee had been called a “mong” by her own team leader.
“This is a nuclear site, where many employees are demoralised, bullied and scared to speak out,” Ms McDermott said.
“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 internal report critical of the human resources department.
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 store in the world
Sellafield, the largest nuclear site in Western Europe, reprocesses spent nuclear fuel, splitting it into plutonium, uranium and waste.
More than 140 tonnes of plutonium are stored in giant hangers, the biggest civil stockpile of the metal in the world.
Staff are tasked with decontaminating and dismantling the vast site which has been producing nuclear material since the 1950s.
Sellafield is ultimately owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), a non-departmental government body.
It employs more than 10,000 staff directly with thousands more working indirectly through contractors.
The BBC has also seen a letter sent in September 2020 by Sellafield’s network of ethnic minority staff to the firm’s board, cataloguing a series of 27 racist incidents.
One employee said they were walking through the site when a driver of a passing car shouted “racist taunts” before speeding off.
“I reported it but after a cursory investigation I was told nothing could be done to find and deal with the culprit,” the staff member said.
The letter contains multiple examples of offensive racial slurs being used openly on the site.
One worker said his instructor at a training course told the class the main threat 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 worker 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 accept the organisation has a problem with racism and commit to better education and training.
“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 said.
Karl Connor, a senior manager at Sellafield for more than 13 years, resigned in January after suffering a breakdown he said was caused, in part, 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 said.
He said there were some “fantastic people” working on the site but the working culture could be difficult to deal 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 said.
“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 in the process of bringing a disability discrimination case against the company.
‘Fear of reprisals’
A work environment where staff are treated with dignity and respect is an “essential trait of a healthy nuclear safety culture”, according to the World Association of Nuclear Operators, an organisation formed in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster – of which Sellafield is a member.
An internal staff survey commissioned by the firm in 2018 and seen by the BBC showed 54% of the employees who filled in the poll agreed they “could speak out about doing the right thing without fear of reprisals”, a fall of 11 percentage points since the previous survey in 2016.
Sellafield management said staff surveys “brought focus” to concerns about bullying and harassment at the site.
“We did not ignore this, or seek to cover it up,” said 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 also spoken to a number of former and current members of staff who had concerns about safety at the site.
In one case a senior member of the underwater diving unit claimed he was bullied and sidelined after highlighting staffing levels he felt were unsafe. He said after he retired Sellafield did increase the number of people on the team.
In an incident from December 2017, a worker was exposed to plutonium after a bag of nuclear waste was opened in a workshop used to repair contaminated machinery.
An internal safety report seen by the BBC blamed a “deficiency in leadership standards” for the accident, a near repeat of a similar case in 2015 in which no-one was hurt.
The report said an alarm meant to measure radioactive contamination levels in the air was triggered, but it had become “custom and practice” to consider the alerts a nuisance by staff.
The BBC has seen redacted emails released under the freedom of information act, apparently between people involved in the subsequent investigation. A number refer to claims of a cover up and allegations of intimidating and threatening behaviour.
“It was a serious incident and not to be taken lightly,” said one serving Sellafield employee who is currently responsible for nuclear safety.
“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 safety report said new measures were put in place to prevent a similar accident in the future, with staff reminded of the checks they need to make in ‘radiologically controlled areas’.
A Sellafield spokesperson said: “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 said the company was working to improve its processes so employees can have confidence that when issues are raised, they are dealt with.
“We closely monitor our progress, including seeking the views of our workforce through working groups and surveys,” he said.
“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.”