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Nuclear power plant faces £1.7m whistleblower claim over ‘toxic’ homophobia, bullying allegations

Emma Powys Maurice July 2, 2021
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homophobic abuse Sellafield

Sellafield nuclear power plant (Marcus Pomfret/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty)

A whistleblower who claimed she was fired for reporting alleged bullying, harassment and “vile” homophobic abuse at Sellafield, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, is seeking £1.7m in compensation.

HR consultant Alison McDermott said she was let go in 2018 after she wrote a report describing a “toxic culture” at Sellafield in Cumbria, which employs more than 10,000 people.

Sellafield maintains she was fired because her work was “fundamentally flawed”; however, a BBC investigation revealed an “abusive” culture so entrenched that staff feared nuclear safety concerns could go unreported.

“This is a nuclear site, where many employees are demoralised, bullied and scared to speak out,” McDermott told the broadcaster. “You’ve got toxic materials and a toxic culture, if you put those two together then you’ve got a recipe for disaster.”

Giving evidence at a hearing in Leeds attended by the BBC, McDermott said reports of “vile” homophobic abuse at the nuclear fuel reprocessing and decommissioning site were not investigated.

No action was taken against a member of the HR team who allegedly told inappropriate jokes, touched female colleagues and bragged about sexual conquests.

She claimed at their first meeting HR director Heather Roberts had said: “I hope you’re not going to tell me we’re going to start letting women in burkas in here.”

The tribunal heard that McDermott’s contract was terminated after she submitted a draft report which was critical of the HR department. Responding to the report, Roberts allegedly said there was no evidence for an external investigation.

McDermott’s lawyer James Arnold said of his client: “This was a lady concerned with equality, diversity and inclusion. It was deeply embedded in her psyche and she was raising concerns. She did nothing wrong in doing so.

“When she thought those concerns weren’t being addressed she turned to the governing body. In my submission, it was brave of her to do so.”

Deshpal Panesar QC, representing Sellafield and Roberts, disputed McDermott’s allegations, saying: “Even before her claim was lodged the claimant sought a multi-million pound settlement from the [Nuclear Decommissioning Authority].”

Panesar told the hearing in that McDermott was “prepared to ruin” the careers of those she had worked with.

The £1.7m McDermott is seeking in the lawsuit equates to £56,000 for each of the 21 days she had been employed by the site, he told the tribunal.

Employment judge Philip Lancaster said a written judgment would follow when the panel had concluded deliberations.

Sellafield staff described ‘routine’ sexist, homophobic bullying in leaked letter

Shocking stories from the Sellafield site first emerged 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.”

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

However, a leaked letter from Sellafield staff in March suggested little had changed, alleging unchecked racism, ableism and sexual harassment combined with routine sexist and homophobic bullying.

“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 previously 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.

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

Related topics: bullying, Homophobia

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