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Coronavirus: Sellafield workers ordered to stay home as ‘controlled shutdown’ of site accelerates

Staff email warns that “decisions” made now in response to coronavirus pandemic could have far-reaching consequences for ongoing efforts to decommission former nuclear power plant

Sellafield has ordered all staff, except those involved in maintaining the site’s nuclear security and safety, to stay away as efforts to accelerate the controlled shutdown of its facilities for Covid-19 coronavirus-related reasons gather pace.

The nuclear processing company’s director of environment for safety and security, Mark Neate, is known to have emailed Sellafield’s employees on the evening of Sunday 22 March 2020, setting out plans to minimise the number of people working at its sites.

The main hub is within Sellafield, Cumbria, which is in the process of being decommissioned. The location is also home to more than 200 nuclear facilities and 1,000 buildings, which are used for nuclear fuel reprocessing and nuclear waste storage.

The order for staff to stay away marks an acceleration of the organisation’s plans to embark on a “controlled shutdown” of its operational facilities in response to coronavirus, and is also in line with the government’s calls for citizens to socially distance themselves from one another to slow the virus’s spread.

“The coronavirus pandemic demands an unprecedented response from all of us,” wrote Neate. “We will always be responsible and conservative in our decision-making and our priorities remain the protection of our workforce and the maintenance of safe and secure site operations.”

The email, seen by Computer Weekly, goes on to acknowledge that “any decision” the organisation takes now in response to the coronavirus pandemic could have far-reaching consequences for its “critically important” work, which centres on the decommissioning of the former nuclear power site.

“Last week we made an operational decision to undertake a controlled shutdown of our complex operational facilities,” wrote Neate. “The process of controlled shutdown is still under way.

“As we now accelerate the shutdown, we acknowledge that we still have a critically important national mission to undertake and that any decision we make now could impact our ability to deliver in the future – for our workforce, communities, business and country.”

As part of this, the email orders all Sellafield workers to stay away from the site and warns that access to all of its satellite offices will be restricted from Monday 23 March 2020, except to individuals involved in maintaining the safety and security of the site.

“We will also be temporarily pausing any project and supply chain work that does not directly impact nuclear safety and security,” Neate continued. “This will help us to maximise social distancing in all of our workplaces.

“This reduced attendance therefore also applies to our supply chain colleagues and we ask that those colleagues contact their employer if any clarification is needed, to be absolutely clear suppliers are not to attend site from tomorrow while we carry out our review.” 

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The email went on to say that there is no timeline in place at the moment dictating how long these arrangements will need to be maintained, and the organisation is being “deliberately conservative” in its decision-making to manage the situation.

At the same time, staff are also being made aware that they might be asked to carry out different duties to normal as time goes on, including offering support to members of the wider community in and around Sellafield who need help. 

“We will continue to look for opportunities to deliver our remediation mission safely and expect to play a more significant role in supporting our communities,” wrote Neate.  

“You may be asked to carry out a different role or contribute to a different area of the business. We are also starting to identify areas within our community where we can provide support and may ask you to assist with this.”

He added: “There will be more guidance and advice published supporting these new arrangements, especially regarding the use of technology. Please bear with us while this guidance is being developed – your patience is appreciated.”

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