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Restarting high hazard reduction work at Sellafield – our employees’ perspective

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This week our Chief Executive Martin Chown visited the First Generation Magnox Storage Pond (FGMSP) to see first-hand how the legacy pond is preparing to restart its first small parcel of operational work, with the maintenance of the pond’s skip handler.

Martin Chown talking to employees standing on the gantry of FGMSP
Alongside the Head of Legacy Ponds Dorothy Gradden, Martin Chown had a bird's eye view of the pond and preparation to restart work as Shift Team Manager Andrew Bell showed him around

Martin also met some of the people who have been continuing to work on site for the last 2 months to get their perspective on how a careful, phased restart of work feels on the ground. It follows on from a visit he made the previous week to the newly opened Box Encapsulation Plant Product Store Direct Import Facility (BEPPS-DIF) construction site.

He said:

As CEO it is important to me to demonstrate visible leadership. I have been able to spend some time over the past couple of weeks with the teams in BEPPS-DIF and FGMSP. I thought the work areas were very well organised and the commitment and passion shown from our workforce was outstanding.

A few weeks ago I asked everybody to contribute to making their work areas safe and effective. It was fantastic to see that is exactly what people are doing whilst taking their own personal responsibility seriously.

Here we give a snapshot of what’s going on in the plants where we’re restarting some important high hazard risk reduction work, plus first-hand experiences of some of the people working there and how they feel about work steadily restarting.

First Generation Magnox Storage Pond

Stage 3 work restarting: Skip handler maintenance and repairs, including completion of scaffolding work paused at the start of the COVID-19 restrictions.

Number of people being reintroduced to do the work: In total, approximately 20, although they won’t be all there working at the same time. Different teams will build the 8-metre scaffold in a radiologically challenging area, do the repairs and then carry out the maintenance work afterwards over a number of weeks.

Plant status since COVID-19: Over the last two months there have been six people per shift in FGMSP offering 24/7 cover for essential care and maintenance work and minimum safety manning levels.

Why is the work important: Getting the skip handler ready for action now will mean that we can restart waste retrievals when the time is right without any further delays. Emptying the waste from FGMSP is one of highest-priority jobs on site.


Martin Chown meeting employees in a control room
Distancing measures are strictly enforced in the FGMSP control room, as Martin found when he met the team who've been holding the fort for the past 2 months

View from the plant: 

Steve Bayliss, Shift Team Co-ordinator

Image of Steve Bayliss

I’ve worked right through lockdown on a four-on, six-off shift pattern. Without the retrievals work it’s certainly been a lot quieter across all the legacy ponds and silos.

In the last 8 weeks people have adapted and made their own adjustments to the way they work and move around. We did that without many signs and rulebooks initially, we just used our heads and found solutions which worked - such as team meetings over the phone rather than being in the same room. But as we slowly start to increase the amount of work, there’ll be more organisation and process around it.

There is a general appreciation that we need more people back to get more work done. And it is a drip feed rather than a rush of people. But we still need to protect those doing the key work, the minimum safety work we’ve been doing for the past two months, those who absolutely have to be here.

It’s really important that those coming back in appreciate the care and thought we’ve put in to protecting each other on site for the last 2 months.

One of my colleagues is diabetic, but has chosen to come back in because he could see that others covering for him were starting to struggle with their own family situations.

My first grandchild was born a week before lockdown. My wife and I have only seen her growing up as my daughter holds her at the other end of the garden path. So I feel understandably nervous that some thoughtless person turning up on site could undo all that effort, hard work and caution.

Magnox Swarf Storage Silo

Stage 3 work restarting: Inactive commissioning of SEP2 retrievals machine over Compartment 4

Number of people being reintroduced to do the work: Up to 5 people per shift working in designated areas of the plant. Segregation measures have been introduced to keep the new people away from the core Stage 1 and 2 plant people doing the care and surveillance work – these include separate EPD machines, frisk probes, stairwells and ‘drop zones’ for safely handing over equipment and works material.

New safety measures being put in place
Segregation measures have been put in place
Safety measures put in place in stairwells
Safety measures on stairwells

Plant status since COVID-19: Over the last 2 months there have been 10 people per shift in MSSS offering 24/7 cover for essential care and maintenance work and minimum safety manning levels. This is compared with the circa 200 people you would normally have on the plant on a typical working day.

Why is the work important: It’s critical path work for our highest priority job: emptying the waste from our most hazardous legacy facility. The work was paused when we ramped down operations in March, but needs to be completed and approved by our regulator before we can progress to the next stage. Every day when this work doesn’t get done is an extra day before we can start waste retrievals in 2021.

View from the plant:
Mike Brown, Shift Team Manager:


image of Mike Brown in his PPE on the Selalfield site
Shift Team Manager, Mike Brown

The rampdown of work was pretty rapid back in March. We all worked on the MSSS continuity plan so that we would have contingency plans for all scenarios potentially emerging from the virus. The level of communication and support from management has felt about right throughout the pandemic. Any queries have been answered and we are all continually learning what the new normal looks like.

When you’re at home with your family self-isolating and shopping online, you feel safe. However, when you are coming to work you know inevitably you are putting yourself and your family at increased risk. The control measures that have been put in place on the facility, which are being continually improved, do make you feel more at ease. It’s amazing how quickly people adapt and it becomes routine to frequently sanitise your work areas and your hands.

Before SEP 2 personnel returned to site, I produced a short summary of all the significant changes since they were last here to help them. We check every morning that people feel well and check at the end of the day whether people have any concerns.

The real challenge will be how we increase the number of personnel safely on the facility and maintain the control measures required to protect us.

Adam Jackson, Shift Team Manager:

Portrait image of Adam Jackson
Shift Team Manager, Adam Jackson

I only came back in on 11th May after self-isolating for 6 weeks. We put in place defensive measures to make sure we’d always have a duly authorised person protected among the 6 shift team managers and I took the first stint. Now I’m back in I can see all the changes that have been implemented since I was last in: hand sanitizers either side of the borer, tape on the floor and signs on the wall to enforce distancing, seating restrictions and wipes on tables in the canteen.

From speaking to others, I don’t think it was quite so organised at the start and that’s probably understandable given the early difficulties in getting hold of PPE and the fact we were all getting our head round it.

When I look at our maintenance and operations teams working I can really see how they’ve upped their game and how conscientious they are in the way they work and look after each other. The questioning attitude has got a lot stronger, people are asking each other where they’ve been to check that no-one is putting anyone else at risk. The fear is that all this careful and cautious behaviour we’ve built up could be endangered by more thoughtless people coming back onto site, so we’ll really need to watch out for that.

At the moment it still feels like Christmas Day in terms of the number of people you see on plant but I detect we’re heading for another anxious time as we restart more work and more people are coming back in. In an old plant like this it’s inevitable that there will be some pinch points where it’s difficult to keep people apart but there will be more protective measures introduced as we bring more people back in – one-way stairwells, things like that.

But more important than all the physical, structural stuff is the mindset of every single individual coming back in. They need to look after themselves, their families and their colleagues by following the rules.

Special Nuclear Materials North

Stage 3 work restarting: Finishing Line 4 Type 1 Can Repackaging

Number of people being reintroduced to do the work: In total 10 extra people will work in Special Nuclear Materials North to do this work, but these are people who have been attending work anyway to cover Stage 1 and 2 work.

Plant status since COVID-19: The plant has been kept safe and secure throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Finishing Line 5 was shut down, washed out and placed in quiescent state. A small team of operators and a duly authorised person have covered minimum safety manning levels on each shift to carry out essential care and maintenance work, including ensuring cooling systems remain operational and stores remain safe and secure.

Why is the work important: Repackaging the historic plutonium cans which have an identified risk of degradation into more robust outer cans is a key area of risk management for us while we await the construction of our new SRP plant for a longer term storage solution.

View from the plant:
Lee Ford, Manufacturing Team Leader:

portrait image of Lee Ford
Manufacturing Team Leader, Lee Ford

We quickly adapted when the seriousness of COVID-19 became clear. As there was only a small team of operators on plant, it was relatively simple to talk and agree changes in the way we interacted with each other and it didn’t feel like it was necessary to have too much physical signage or tape in the places where we worked at the start.

As we see more work likely to restart, we’ve took it upon ourselves to prepare the workplace with extra signage, measuring out and marking safe space distances in walkways and the control room, taping off sinks that are too close together, changing how we organise the use of frisking probes, putting in one-way systems around the plant, and new rules like one person at a time in the EPD room.

safe space distancing lines on floor
Marking safe space distances in walkways

The teams that have been here for the full 9 weeks of lockdown have adapted really well, changing behaviours to adapt to these new working conditions. Now you can sense the uneasiness in people as we prepare for more people coming back to work who aren’t used to these new conditions which they will have to adapt to. It’s also refreshing to see people challenging others who are only attending site occasionally, ensuring that these behaviours are instilled in everybody.

In reintroducing the new work on Finishing Line 4 Repack Facility, we’ve also changed the way we process the job so that different teams don’t have to interact with each other. Previously we would get the can out of the store, repack it and then return it to store all in the same day. Now we have a day when the store team gets the can out of store, a day when the repack team does their work and a day when the store team return the can to store.

There are improvements we need to make, such as manage when maintenance teams do their work so they don’t interact with repack teams and streamline the process so that all the different stages are done on the same day, with the same social distancing measures in place so we can eventually ramp up to more cans per week. But we are all learning to adapt and change the ways we work.

Box Encapsulation Plant Product Store – Direct Import Facility (BEPPS-DIF)

Stage 3 work restarting: Construction work on site

Number of people being introduced to do the work: Initially around 50, to fluctuate with work demand.

Plant status since COVID-19: As with all our construction sites, work on-site ceased at the moment of lockdown. The site was made safe and a small team were brought in a week before construction restart to ensure the site was ready for restart.

Why is the work important: Our BEPPS-DIF facility will accept and safely store both conditioned and unconditioned waste packages created by high hazard reduction work across the Sellafield site.

View from the plant: From the moment construction work paused, we knew that people would return at some point, and we knew that we wanted them to be safe.

view of the stores on the Sellafield site
Additional risk assessments and new signage on the BEPPS-DIF project

So throughout April and into May ahead of the beginning of a phased restart on 11 May, BEPPS-DIF piloted new measures including stringent social distancing, increased cleaning regimes, reinforcing hand washing rules, changes to travel to and from worksites, extra supervision, additional risk assessments and new signage.

Image of Steve Harnwell
Head of Projects, Steve Harnwell

It’s brought a visible change to the way the site looks. Head of Projects Steve Harnwell said:

We’ve been working with our supply chain colleagues who have collaborated and generously shared their approach, as well as linking in with trade unions, and we feel we’re fully in-line with best practices deployed throughout the UK. The most important thing is to keep our workforce safe, and these measures will help do this.

One week into the phased return, with around 50 people now working on the BEPPS-DIF site, CEO Martin Chown took a look at how work was progressing.

He said:

It was important for me to see and understand the new arrangements as well as viewing the facility and progress there.

I was delighted to see some very clear working arrangements and organised access to the site. Workplace separation has been an important part of the plans, the arrangements are simple and effective, such as painted arrows on floors, clear signage and floor marking to show where staff should be.

Our suppliers are part of the return to work and Martin met with some of the Balfour Beatty team on site making preparations for further returns.

Empty office space

BEPPS-DIF has started with access and working arrangements that are right for this site at this phase of activity, all areas of work across Sellafield will require implementation of their own arrangements based on the characteristics of each. We can learn from each other and follow the same fundamentals, but we can’t just lift and shift.

Any arrangements will change over time as more workers access site.

Interim Project Delivery Director Neil Crewdson accompanied Martin to the site. He said:

Our priority will always be to keep our workforce safe – this project is only the beginning, but it will allow us to learn how we can apply this ‘new normal’ to our other work fronts.

A huge amount of work has been taking place behind the scenes to get us to the position where work can restart on these critical projects.

Portrait image of Neil Crewdson
Interim Project Delivery Director Neil Crewdson

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