Wrangling over Sellafield fuels process of decay: Lack of a decision over the Cumbria nuclear reprocessing plant is blamed for the loss of 1,000 jobs. Alex Renton visits a threatened community

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The Independent Online
GRAVEYARD humour is a speciality at the Windscale Club, just by Sellafield's south gate. A notice is being passed round the bar: 'For sale. One semi-commissioned nuclear reprocessing plant, pounds 1.85bn ono 736 bedrooms, indoor heated pool, sauna, sea view, car park to rear for 1,500 cars, ideal for commuting to Sellafield.'

'You have got,' a British Nuclear Fuels engineer said, 'to have a sense of humour.'

'That's fair enough,' a software systems analyst said, 'if you've still got a job.'

By yesterday 1,000 of BNFL's contracted workers at the Sellafield site on the Cumbria coast had not got a job - a direct effect, according to the company, of the Government's decision not to make a decision over whether Thorp, the new nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, should open.

In the next few weeks, 700 more contractors are expected to be dismissed and if, after the Government has once again pondered the economic and the environmental statistics, Thorp does not go ahead, anything up to 3,000 more job losses can be expected. The men in this bar are staff, not contractors, but this week voluntary redundancy offers went out to many of them, too.

'Thorp,' one man said, 'is going to be the Concorde of the 1990s. But not as pretty.'

'It's worse than that,' his friend said. 'It's the death of the nuclear industry. In fact, it's the death of all of it - look at all this talent, the electricians, the mechanical engineers, the fitters, we're all going to become like stonemasons. A lost art.'

In the little town of Seascale, next to the plant, there are gaps in the terrace of drab shops on the seafront. The Midland Bank, the Halifax, the greengrocer have all gone. Behind the till in A Better Livin', the general store, Anne Lee said the mood was one of angry resignation.

'Our takings are down: the whole district is dying. People know that there are going to be more job losses, whatever happens. But the worst thing is that the Government won't make its mind up - if only people could know, one way or the other.'

Though some workers greeted the first round of redundancy notices by vandalising BNFL vehicles, most people's wrath is reserved for the Government and its indecision.

In his office in the decaying fishing port of Whitehaven, Robin Smith, general manager of Copeland Borough Council, kept tight control on his bitterness. But he and his councillors feel abandoned.

He listed the ministers - six of them - who had cancelled or postponed meetings with the council over the last nine months, and other examples of Whitehall delay and indecision. 'We've been waiting to hear if we'll get Assisted Area Status - at the moment, as a council, we're treated the same as Knightsbridge. In 1991 we were told we would become an Enterprise Zone. We're still waiting.'

Unemployment in the area is expected to rise to above 20 per cent by Christmas, whether Thorp opens or not. The nuclear industry provides a living for 40 per cent of the Copeland workforce and, apart from a chemical works in Whitehaven, there is no other significant employer. Two hours by poor roads from the nearest motorway, Copeland offers little to new industry, and all but 2 per cent of tourists visiting Cumbria stay in the Lake District.

Not everyone is in mourning for Thorp. Jill Perry, co-ordinator of the local Friends of the Earth group, said: 'It's good news for us. We've always said there needed to be a better reason for doing other countries' reprocessing, other than making jobs or money.'

She teaches at a school in the Sellafield dormitory town of Egremont, where pupils are apt to refer to her as 'the teacher who wants my Dad out of a job'. But she won't accept the blame: 'The nuclear industry moved in when everything around here had closed down, and took advantage of us.'

Like many local people, she suspects that the current job losses have as much to do with BNFL's campaign against the Government as anything else. 'If Thorp didn't open there'd still be jobs. Decommissioning the place will take years, and 4,000 people will be needed to construct dry stores (one of the alternative proposals for disposing of nuclear waste).'

Egremont is a gold rush town whose seam has run out. The many lodging houses all have 'vacancy' signs up. In the King's Arms a group of scaffolding contractors, all made redundant or on notice, are starting a lager-fuelled afternoon. The consensus is that the plant will open - 'they wouldn't dare do anything else' - but there will never be another job for them in Cumbria.

Frank, 42, who lost his job last week, was born and brought up in Egremont. 'The mining industry failed, the chocolate factory failed, the milk marketing board went, the shoe factory. Now we've nothing - we're blackmailed to work at Sellafield, and then Sellafield doesn't want us any more. We put all our eggs in one basket: we'd have been better off without it.'

John Brown, 73, said: 'I've seen it all go, here.' The son of a farmer, he worked in the coal industry until it closed, then helped build the sea wall. He did a year of construction work at Sellafield, and would not hear a word against Thorp. 'It's the new era. It's the future. And anyway, they must keep it going, or the whole of West Cumbria will suffer.'

'West Cumbria?' sneered Frank. 'It's a forgotten place. Soon to be a dead one.'

(Photographs omitted)