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
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
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 favor. 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.
© 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd