NATIONAL security was put at risk when an IT worker at Sellafield took home USB memory sticks containing "sensitive" nuclear systems data.

Louise Telford claimed her dismissal for gross misconduct over the practice amounted to unfair dismissal but an employment tribunal has ruled against her, concluding that her bosses were justified in sacking her. 

The hearing was told that Miss Telford worked for Sellafield since 1996, eventually becoming a senior control systems engineer.

The security breach that led to her dismissal came to light when managers called her to a meeting to discuss a “security matter.” They told her a black mesh bag was found in the site’s car park. She confirmed it was hers.

Inside the bag were a USB memory sticks, on which she was storing the computer operating system for the Thorp nuclear fuel reprocessing plant. Miss Telford vaguely recalled parking in the disabled bay and items spilling on to the tarmac.

She ommitted to pick up the bag, balming her disability and “forgetfulness.” Explaining why she had the sensitive data on the USB sticks, she said she needed to start work late each day because of her disability.

She put the software on the USB sticks – in an unencrypted form – so she could work at home on her own computer after managers locked away official unencrypted USB drivers by 4.30pm for security reasons.

But managers said her actions risked Sellafield's IT systems becoming corrupted with ‘Malware’ viruses or other damaging software. The incident also caused 261 hours of work for Sellafield IT engineers and security experts.

Her bosses said it was not reasonable for Miss Telford to put such company information on an unencrypted USB stick, along with personal photos and work relating to her weekend job at the computer game retailer Game

Tribunal Employment Judge Alan Johnson wrote: “This was a case which involved an employer who operated in a field where national security and safety was of paramount importance...

“The management of personal data has for all employers and employees become an increasingly important matter... but with Sellafield, there was the added dimension of data being sensitive in terms of its potential impact on nuclear safety, the threat of terrorism and overall national security.

“One does not have to be an enthusiast of the history of espionage to be aware of how the smallest of information breaches can form part of a much wider programme or strategy by a third-party body to undermine sensitive industries such as Sellafield.

“It is not hyperbole...for an employer dealing with these environments to treat any data breach as potentially forming part of a much greater danger to the business, the local environment or indeed the nation as a whole.

“It is unfortunate Miss Telford failed to recognise the real dangers and concerns which arose from the way in which she managed the Thorp… data, but for the reasons given above, this Tribunal must conclude that she was treated fairly, and dismissal was not a surprising outcome given what had happened.”

Miss Telford’s disability discrimination claim also failed.

In her appeal to Sellafield, she referred to “similar previous incidents” which were not treated as seriously. But, the tribunal heard, those incidents involved a less serious category of data - official rather than "official sensitive".

A Sellafield Ltd spokesman said:“Safety and security are our overriding priorities at Sellafield. We’re pleased the tribunal supported our handling of this case, noting our care and consideration for the individual and our commitment to protecting information security.”

The tribunal heard that Miss Telford suffers from a number of medical conditions which require her to take medication every day.