Thursday, February 21, 2002

A nuclear physicist who looked after radioactive materials at Sellafield quit his job in disgust after a breakdown of trust, an employment tribunal was told.

Ronald Hanas, 47, left BNFL Instruments (BI) in November 2000 after eight months working there in a monitoring role earning around 30,000 a year.

At a tribunal in Carlisle on Tuesday, Mr Hanas claimed that the company presented information in a "distorted manner".

And Mr Hanas, who was responsible for controlling plutonium and uranium, also claimed that the company :

nKnowingly sold faulty equipment which was badly designed and not fit for its purpose.

nHad a questionably flexible attitude to the law and BNFL requirements.

nPenny-pinched at the expense of safety and legal requirements.

nAllowed commercial pressures to influence its procedures for handling weapons' grade nuclear materials.

nSuffered from an institutional cavalier attitude.

Mr Hanas, was involved in the control of radioactive materials at BNFL Instruments, which is an independent business arm of BNFL, at the Windscale nuclear licensed site in West Cumbria.

A BNFL spokesman today said the qualified physicist had been a "relatively junior member of staff". He was said to be at the level where employees would begin having line-management responsibilities.

Mr Hanas told the tribunal that he resigned "in disgust" after months of difficulties in his role as source administrator.

Mr Hanas, who comes from the Whitehaven area, is bringing a claim for constructive dismissal and a further claim under the Public Interest Disclosure Act.

He said: "It was impossible to continue my employment with BNFL Instruments due to a lack of management support and serious concerns over the actions of BNFL.

"BI are a poor employer, in fact, the worst I have encountered in 30 years of work.

"I also believe the company is expert in presenting information in a distorted manner. This is done in order to deceive the public and employees."

Mr Hanas said there had been a steady progression of incidents which led to the breakdown of trust between him and BI.

Immediately when he joined the company as a nuclear physicist in 1998, he became concerned about the sale of equipment used for measuring and locating radioactive material.

"My earliest concerns were with the general attitude I observed in BI to employees and to ethics with regard to customers," he said.

"It rapidly became apparent that BI were selling equipment...which they knew did not work properly...was poorly designed and not fit for its purpose."

He said some instruments were built using poor quality components and they were being supplied for use in areas which were beyond their design capability.

But when he tried to raise his concerns, he found senior management at BNFL were reluctant to discuss matters.

Mr Hanas said: "I found that speaking openly and frankly about such matters was frowned upon and there was a general lack of willingness to confront such issues."

Later, when Mr Hanas became a source administrator, he discovered more worrying anomalies, the first of which was the proper description of his role.

Although described in Environment Agency documentation as the person responsible for the control of registered materials, including plutonium and uranium, Mr Hanas's position and duties were never outlined in writing for other employees.

Soon after taking on the job in April 2000, however, his discovery that the company was in breach of statutory regulations - and was therefore operating illegally - led to a quarantining of 328 radioactive materials and an Environment Agency (EA) investigation.

But when Mr Hanas tried to brief other employees about the probe, he was dismayed to find one man in charge of radioactive substances who allegedly treated the investigation as a "bit of a joke".

When he raised his concerns about the employee's attitude, he was told: "We can't let these people (the EA) push us around."

Mr Hanas said: "I felt this attitude was wholly inappropriate, given that BI were clearly in the wrong.

"This was not what I expected given my own efforts to rectify matters in order to avert prosecution."

The further failure of management to act when the same employee refused the EA entry to a store where radioactive substances were being kept - in effect, obstructing a criminal investigation - again contributed to Mr Hanas's feeling that his position was impossible.

He was allegedly faced with the same obstructive attitude when it came to providing the EA with the necessary documentation for its investigation.

"Again the statement was, repeatedly, made that we (BI) should not let the EA push us around," said Mr Hanas.

"I found this a desperate view given the situation BI were in. It was a battle against a mind set which can only be believed if encountered face to face.

"Experience has shown that this seems to be prevalent in a significant proportion of BNFL employees."

Mr Hanas later raised concerns about the possession by BI of "a very significant quantity" of plutonium, uranium and tritium, all of which are used as components of nuclear weapons, but which had been listed in public records to help the company qualify for EA registration.

"It is doubtful if most nation states would be allowed to possess materials of these types in the quantities held by BI," said Mr Hanas.

"I believe that the decision to allow this information on to the public register was made due to the tremendous commercial pressures placed on those in order to re-start waste reprocessing operations, BNFL were prepared to gamble with information relating to the security of fissile materials."

The hearing continues.