The boss of nuclear reprocessing firm BNFL has said he is to step down - just hours before workers at Sellafield take strike action.
About 10,000 people work at Sellafield
Hundreds of employees at the Sellafield site in Cumbria will strike on Friday in a row over pay.
It will be the first strike at the company in 26 years.
On Thursday night, BNFL boss Hugh Collum, 62, announced he would step down next year.
Leaders of trade unions Amicus and the GMB said they hoped Mr Collum's resignation would help break the row over claims the company had reneged on an agreement to close a £2,000 pay gap between manual and white collar workers.
The unions complained that BNFL had agreed to harmonise pay by next April but were now saying it could not be done until 2009.
Brian Strutton, national officer of the GMB, said: "We had hoped that BNFL
would be reasonable and meet with us to avoid this dispute but our calls for
talks have been met with silence.
"It is time for the company to honour their commitments to the workforce and
bring industrial shift pay in line with their white collar counterparts.
"We continue to urge BNFL to sit down and negotiate with us, but they have
refused to do so for the last two months."
Dougie Rooney, national officer at Amicus, said the BNFL board should
"urgently instruct" management to honour the promise they gave to members to harmonise shift pay by April 2004.
The unions are planning to escalate industrial action over the next few weeks
if the dispute is not resolved.
Mr Collum, who was appointed in 1999, said mid-2004 was an appropriate time to step down because a strategic review of the firm will have been completed.
He said: "Making the announcement now gives certainty and stability to the business, by allowing adequate time for my successor to be recruited."