'Management brought it upon themselves, but you'll never get anyone to admit that'

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If evidence of the umbilical relationship between Sellafield and the communities of West Cumbria were ever needed, BNFL found it four weeks ago when it had 20 new jobs to fill. The company did not advertise the vacancies - for 15 process operators and five radiation surveyers - limiting the news to local jobcentres. Notice of the jobs was posted up for only five days but in that time 2,200 people responded.

If evidence of the umbilical relationship between Sellafield and the communities of West Cumbria were ever needed, BNFL found it four weeks ago when it had 20 new jobs to fill. The company did not advertise the vacancies - for 15 process operators and five radiation surveyers - limiting the news to local jobcentres. Notice of the jobs was posted up for only five days but in that time 2,200 people responded.

For all that, the gallows humour was alive and kicking as workers drove up to the plant yesterday morning, contemplating how many more blows the plant could take after Germany's suspension of shipment of the plant's Mox fuel.

"Of all the days for you to be here," grinned one worker, brandishing a newspaper at the police officer who checked his car through the main entrance barrier.

There was no hiding the fear beneath the bluster, though, among workers whose almost universal reluctance to be identified reflects the plant's grip on the area.

At Sellafield's near-derelict railway station, a 35-year-old from the plant's separation area voiced his frustration with the process workers whose fake data led Japan to reject Mox shipments in the first place. "There's a feeling of 'how could those four idiots have been so stupid?'" he said. "We could all have been tempted to do the same thing but everybody knew that after they were found out there would be big problems."

He is one of many workers who claim to have expected the Germans' move. "The German Green Party got in last year and the country's already tried to wriggle out of the contract. Our idiots have given them the excuse. Now the French are sitting pretty, waiting to pick up the contracts from us," he said.

A frustration with those foreign nations believed to be capitalising on Sellafield's trouble threatens to drift into xenophobia. "Sweden has been making noises. Germany is doing the same," said Robin Simpson, leader of Copeland Borough Council. The French, he observed, had bought up two local plants: Albright and Wilson, and British Steel. "Now they are waiting to pick up contracts off BNFL."

John Caines, convener of the GMB general workers' union at Sellafield, agreed that paperwork relating to German contracts had been declared in order in 1996. "We do believe the German government is merely trying to duck out of the contract, as it did a couple of years ago, without incurring penalties," he said. Immacolota Harwood, an archivist at the plant, agreed. "We feared the Germans might jump on the bandwagon," she said.

Some workers, such as Jonathan Street, from the vitrification unit, defend the plant to the hilt. "It is safe - the NII's chief inspector said so - and we are getting a hard time from the environmental lobby," he said. But the absence of direct criticism of BNFL from any worker who is willing be named reflects their desperate need of employment.

"The management have brought it upon themselves, but you'll never get anyone to say that," said one worker.

The timing of the German news was also miserable, coinciding to the day with the new chief executive's first attempts to steady local nerve. Norman Askew sat down with union leaders at midday on Wednesday for a sandwich lunch.

The remnants of Mr Askew's native Preston accent did not go unnoticed. "He looks like a working-class man who's made good," said John Caines. "You could see a ruthless streak there, but that's what it needs."

In yesterday's Whitehaven News, Mr Askew was getting down to brass tacks with locals, too. "I am not Superman. I need your help. It's going to take a lot of bloody hard work," he said. The paper's leading article politely thanked him but reminded him of the many efforts to find new jobs for this area: "There is nothing which could remotely replace BNFL."

Everyone knows the statistics. Sellafield pays its 10,000 local workforce £220m in wages and unions say that if the plant closes the local economy will see 40,000 jobs sink with it.

People in the neighbouring town of Egremont are more aware of this than most. Most men in the street had worked at the plant at some time. A 65-year-old former BNFL labourer was infuriated by the management culture. "In the past it's always been so strict there," he said. "There are some men still in position who shouldn't be."

If the plant does close, the town will be left with little but its castle ruins and Florence Mine, Europe's last working iron ore mine, next to which can be seen the bizarre spectacle of red sheep grazing in a field. Iron ore deposits in the field, not the effects of nuclear power, have dyed the sheep red. The mine was all but deserted yesterday, its wheelhead silent and heritage centre empty. They're hoping against hope that the plant won't go the same way.

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