Thursday, November 01, 2001

Sellafield's Mox plant - the key to safeguarding thousands of jobs and the site's longer-term future - is also expected to be highly secured as well as highly automated. If there is any apprehension of a potential terrorist threat, in the light of international events, then it does not show.

The Whitehaven News was the first of the Cumbrian media to go inside the plant, which has had more than 400 million spent on it and still faces the continued frustration of awaiting a final consent to manufacture Mox fuel - a mixture of plutonium and uranium.

People who work in there - it will have a 350-strong workforce working round the clock - were relaxed and friendly, just waiting, as their American boss Jack Allen put it, for the chance to prove that Mox is a worthwhile and not wasteful proposition after the taint of a pellet specification scandal which gave BNFL a bad name round the world. It led to the sacking of four process workers who got the blame and the resignation of the chief executive, John Taylor, where the buck stopped.

All that fuss came from something that happened in MDF - the Mox Demonstration Facility - which had spent a few years paving the way for full production in this new plant (SMP) where they say the same falsifications won't happen, although nothing can be guaranteed.

Jack Allen, a man with a wealth of nuclear manufacturing and engineering experience, has been brought in from the United States to make sure the right things are done in the right way by the right people in the right frame of mind, so that Mox delivers the right product for more and more customers to put in their electricity-producing reactors around the world.

In attempting to put a human face to the plant, which will have the eyes of the world on it and under the scrutiny of the sceptics, just waiting and hoping for something to go wrong, first impressions were good: there is a definite feel good factor.

It was not unusual when walking through SMP (at the back end of Thorp whose plutonium it will take) for the man who heads it up to be greeted in the most friendly fashion.... "Hi, Jack."

But what came through equally strongly is that this is not and will not be the sort of place with an "I'm all right Jack" attitude.

Jack's watchword is straight talking and he expects it straight from his employees.

One key employee much suited with that is Steve Christian, team leader in the quality control section. "I have had managers you were afraid to talk to. It's nice to work for a man and not feel inhibited," he said.

"I will speak to people," says the boss. "If I am successful, it will be as a result of the way the people here are working. I have to say there is already a tremendous attitude in terms of what they want to do and achieve."

One of the most important rooms in the plant has Safe Systems of Work on the door. Inside, Viv Pictor, from Beckermet, is a mechanical safe system at work co-ordinator. "My job is to ensure the safety of people who work here, to ensure that the job they actually carry out is done in a safe manner. I am confident the training I have been given will enable me to carry out the tasks I am entrusted to do."

There is no more important place than the control room, the veritable nerve centre, where employees sit behind banks of computers which can shut down an expensive operation at a moment's notice.

"No one sits here and gets bored," says Mr Allen.

"Everybody takes ownership of a specific control operation, as well as the physical plant. Operators here are responsible for what the product looks like coming out of their part of the facility. Work has gone into protecting the kind of issues that occurred in MDF, so it takes the burden off any individual and gives a supervision level managing the data."

One of the operators, Carl Adrian Smith, from Seaton, is not afraid to speak his mind. Of the Mox detractors, Carl says: "They should keep their noses out, leaving us alone to do something worthwhile. This plant has been sitting here for five years, that's long enough. We all want to get started and do a good job....and it should be more interesting as it goes along."

Inevitably, the nature of the Mox work - dealing with the highly radioactive plutonium, albeit processed in shielded conditions for protection - means that employees are bound to be conscious of their safety and well-being even if they don't go around talking about it.

"The plutonium is a key concern but the equipment is dedicated to protecting the people from the plutonium. The training and the experience they have across this site we're bringing to bear so we can protect people in the best possible way," maintained the head of Mox operations.

Conceivably, apart from the occupational hazards which are accounted for, could SMP, particularly in the light of its world-wide publicity, become a potential terrorist target?

"That is all opinion," said Mr Allen.

"We have heard enough of the Sellafield site to know this could be a possible terrorist threat but I cannot envisage that one part of the facility above any other would be targeted in any special way.

"The security organisations in the UK that are responsible for this site have looked at the things we are doing, the risks that exist and if there are any gaps they are moving to plug those gaps very swiftly.

"I drive in every day, I chose to work here and I don't feel any more at risk than any other place I have been. I feel more frightened of getting on a plane these days than I do coming to work.

"As you came in this morning you would see the escalated security and I feel protected by that.

"I can't presume what'll happen in terms of terrorism, but I will tell you that the security analysis, the security work done on this site, is just tremendous."

Boredom is a dirty word on the Mox plant. If anyone suffers from boredom - officially one of the reasons given for the falsifications short-cut - Jack Allen will want to be the first to know about it.

SMP key words are: safety first, quality second....and then production.

"That's the attitude we're going to work with here," said Mr Allen. "I am going to acknowledge people and as a result we will see a strong team bonding between me and the rest of the folks. I am not a hit-and-run expert.