British Nuclear Fuels is being sued by black workers at an American plant who claim it shares responsibility for deliberately assigning jobs that exposed them to almost twice as much radiation as their white colleagues in an environment of "hostile racism".
Black workers at the Westinghouse Savannah River Company (WSRC) – a company in which BNFL has a major financial stake – say they found nooses left in their lockers, racist graffiti scrawled on lavatory walls and heard parts of the plant referred to as the "coon area".
They say black workers were constantly overlooked for promotion, despite being better qualified than their white colleagues.
The revelation of the lawsuits, involving 32 individual plaintiffs seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars, will be of considerable embarrassment to BNFL, which says it is strictly opposed to racism. Last night, MPs, trade union leaders and anti-racism campaigners called for the government-owned company to launch an immediate investigation. In the US, workers at the South Carolina plant asked BNFL to intervene and settle the claims.
Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Nottingham South and a former race relations official, said: "It cannot be acceptable under any circumstances for a British company to be involved in any way in these practices. This has moved from prejudice to the criminal and in some cases to the life-threatening. No one is suggesting BNFL was responsible for this but they have rebranded themselves as a clean-up company and they ought to clean up their own house first." Simon Woolley, head of Operation Black Vote, said: "We are talking about the levels of racism seen in Birmingham, Alabama, in the Sixties. [For] a British company not to be dealing with it head-on is completely and utterly scandalous."
The allegations focus on the Savannah River Site (SRS), a former nuclear weapons production facility that now reprocesses nuclear waste in Aiken, South Carolina. The US Department of Energy site, in which BNFL has a 40 per cent economic interest, was found by the American equal opportunities watchdog to have a "racially hostile work environment".
But the lawsuits go further, alleging that black employees were deliberately placed in jobs that carried a greater risk of exposure to radiation.
This is based on a report by James Ruttenber, of the University of Colorado. Using the WSRC's own data, Mr Ruttenber, an expert in toxic exposure in the workplace, concluded black workers were routinely placed in jobs with, on average, 80 per cent more radiation than whites.
The report by Mr Ruttenber, which the plaintiffs are trying to enter as evidence, said: "The analyses support the hypothesis that these differences are due to job placement practices that put blacks in jobs that have higher radiation exposures than whites."
The lawsuits date from 1997, when a New York lawyer, Ivan Smith, tried to bring a class action for 99 workers. Mr Smith said that when he visited the site he was subjected to a hit-and-run car attack and told: "Nigger, get out." WSRC – which has spent $25m (£16m) of the US Department of Energy's money fighting the lawsuits, opposed the class action and a court ruled in its favour. Three plaintiffs withdrew their claims, and 62 settled with WSRC out of court. Those settlements stipulated that company did not accept any wrongdoing.
A spokesman said the company settled because it was cheaper than going to court. The remaining cases are to return to court in October. Last night, the WSRC spokesman said that the company would "certainly defend itself in court".
There is no implication that BNFL encouraged or condoned racism at the site. Last night, it said it had been reassured that any problems, which it said emerged before it bought Westinghouse, had been resolved.
"Since the acquisition of Westinghouse, BNFL has been satisfied that Westinghouse Government Services has conducted itself properly," a spokesman said. "Following the allegations, policies and procedures were extensively reviewed internally and by external experts, and we are confident they are legally sound and are consistent with best equal-opportunities practice. BNFL has a strict policy on equal opportunities and does not condone activities contrary to this. Should new information come to light, we will consider it."
WSRC is a subsidiary of Westinghouse Government Services. WGS. BNFL has a 40 per cent stake in WSRC, but plays no part in the day-to-day running of the plant. BNFL Savannah River Corporation, a company that BNFL owns, has a subcontract with the WSRC. It has also been named in one of the continuing lawsuits.
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