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What is… Sellafield?

Shielded from most of the population by towering mountains of the Lake District Sellafield is an enigma

For the 10,000 people who pass through its gates every day, Sellafield is their job, a factory like any other – albeit with a higher than usual emphasis on safety and security. But for the rest of the UK’s population, it’s a mysterious relic containing a frightening legacy.

Changing the way people think about the site is no easy task. For a start, the vast majority of people still think that Sellafield is a nuclear power plant, when electricity production ceased over a decade ago. You might think that the lack of any cooling towers – they were spectacularly demolished in 2007 – might give people a clue.

Of course, the name Sellafield remains inextricably linked to nuclear issues because of the work that is done on-site – emptying and decommissioning our ageing facilities and reprocessing nuclear fuel from elsewhere.

Perhaps we don’t help ourselves with the language we use – out of necessity we have to talk about our plans for the site in terms of hazardous waste, complex problems and 50 year old buildings.

Yes, a lot of what Sellafield is about is based in the past – a problematic legacy that no-one who works there asked to have, but that must be dealt with. It is these very issues that drive Sellafield forward.

Teams on site and in its satellite offices across Cumbria and in Warrington are constantly innovating, coming up with exciting new ways to achieve work which has never been done before. They are designing, building and using equipment which the rest of the world wants to use. Whether those innovations are huge multi-million pound facilities designed to suck in radioactive sludge and make it safe, or tiny remote-controlled submarines which can explore places people can’t reach, this work is always fascinating.

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Due to its need to bring in new talent, the company has become one of the top graduate employers in the country. In the last few years the company has more than doubled its graduate intake.

And the work being done on-site to reprocess spent nuclear fuel in our Magnox and Thorp plants means it can be used again to keep reactors going across the country.
But the biggest work we are doing could be around changing people’s perceptions. Eva Watson-Graham is Visits Manager. It’s her team’s job to educate and inform visitors to the site.

Her team deal with more than 300 visits a year, guiding 2,000 people around Sellafield – all of whom come with their own preconceptions. Many are UK government officials, wanting to see how public money is being spent. Others are from abroad – particularly Japan and China – to see the sites unrivalled knowledge of nuclear decommissioning.
Eva said: “It’s important that they see the site for themselves. They understand what we are working towards, but not the conditions we are working under.”.

They often can’t believe how congested and interconnected the site is – in the US, for example, a nuclear site like Sellafield might be spread over an area the size of Cumbria.

Carol Parkinson is a Training Manager for Sellafield Ltd and is responsible for the induction process which brings new staff on-site. The induction programme is currently being redesigned from scratch, to better inform new staff about the changes the company faces and explain the part they can play in the successful delivery of the Sellafield Ltd strategy.

Carol said: “We tend to find that people come to us with a number of preconceptions – they think Sellafield has an endless pot of money to spend, they think it’s one big building with one plant inside, they’ve heard tales of how people who work here ‘glow in the dark’. Some of them are scared to enter the site. People’s knowledge of what goes on in Sellafield is extremely limited, and it’s our job to change that.

“We are altering the focus of our induction, so instead of looking back at our history it looks forward. We want our new staff to understand that they are the generation that is going to make the big changes to the site.”

As time goes on, Sellafield’s contribution to the West Cumbrian skyline will change dramatically– several of its huge chimneys have already followed the cooling towers into history, and the surviving Windscale Pile Chimney is in the process of being demolished right now.

In a century’s time, when we have finally completed our mission, there will be nothing left of Sellafield apart from a few old photographs. This is clearly the right thing to do. Even when the mission is complete Sellafield should always be recognised as an iconic pioneering and groundbreaking site of huge national importance.