Homophobic, racist and sexist bullying at power plant so pervasive it prompts nuclear safety fears

Emma Powys Maurice
·3-min read

The “toxic” culture behind Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant has been exposed as workers share damning accounts of routine homophobic, sexist, racist bullying.

A leaked letter from staff at Sellafield nuclear site in Cumbria described “shocking stories” of racial abuse at the sprawling site, which employs more than 10,000 people.

Other employees said discriminatory remarks were so frequently ignored by bosses that sexist harassment and homophobic bullying had become “routine”.

A BBC investigation found the “abusive” culture at Sellafield was so entrenched that whistleblowers feared it could let nuclear safety concerns go unreported.

“This is a nuclear site, where many employees are demoralised, bullied and scared to speak out,” the broadcaster heard from Alison McDermott, a senior consultant hired in 2017 to work on equality strategy at the plant.

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

The problems at Sellafield were first made public in 2019, when a video message to staff from chief executive Paul Foster was leaked to the Daily Mail.

In it he disclosed that a survey had found one in 20 of the workforce were being bullied or harassed, and one in four felt it was tolerated by bosses.

One anonymous employee said at the time: “I am genuinely worried that something big is going to happen here and if it does it will contaminate a large part of Europe.”

With the government prompted to intervene, Foster said he was “ashamed and embarrassed” by the findings and vowed that bullying would not be tolerated at Sellafield.

But the BBC’s investigation suggests little has changed in the last two years, with multiple cases of serious bullying and sexual harassment still being reported.

In one internal email, a senior HR manager at the site described how an autistic employee had been called an ableist slur by her own team leader.

In another incident a 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.”

Young women were said to be “in tears after work” due to the sexual harassment they faced. One interviewee recalled being asked by a senior manager in “graphic terms” if she had performed sexual favours to win a recent promotion.

The leaked letter from staff 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.

A Sellafield spokesperson told the BBC: “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.”