Safety Fears Force Blair to Shelve Pounds 1.5bn Privatisation of BNFL ; but Furore as MoD Says It Can Run Nuclear Arms Plant at Aldermaston
Colin Brown and Steve Connor, The Independent (London, England)
MINISTERS SHELVED the pounds 1.5bn part-privatisation of British Nuclear Fuels last night because of the continuing safety fears surrounding the company.
The controversy about the business was fuelled by a subsequent announcement that, despite the concerns, a consortium to which it belongs will be allowed to run the Ministry of Defence's atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston.
The consortium, AWE Management, was awarded the pounds 2.2bn contract from the Ministry of Defence last December to run the site in Berkshire but a review was ordered after the damning safety criticisms of BNFL prompted by an investigation by The Independent.
The Energy minister, Helen Liddell, admitted to MPs yesterday that events at the Sellafield plant in Cumbria, which the firm operates, had been "a setback" to the privatisation scheme.
Any sale would have to be delayed until BNFL had had time to respond to Health and Safety Executive reports on the Sellafield site by improving its safety and commercial performance, she said.
The earliest possible date for the introduction of any element of public- private partnership would now be late 2002 - coincidentally after the latest possible date for the election of May 2002 - Mrs Liddell said.
The Conservative Energy spokesman Nick Gibb condemned the sell- off delay, which he said would jeopardise jobs and "postpone the development of effective management at BNFL".
BNFL has been at the centre of a string of controversies over recent months, after The Independent revealed that workers had falsified documentation for reprocessed fuel destined for Japan.
Japan, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland have all suspended deliveries of fuel.
And a Nuclear Installations Inspectorate report condemned "serious management failures" at BNFL and threatened to shut Sellafield down unless a raft of 28 safety improvements was pushed through.
The Irish and Danish governments began moves earlier this week to have Sellafield closed under international treaties on marine pollution.
Yesterday's announcements were seen as a move by the Government to shore up international confidence in the company.
The Government admitted that the falsification of safety records at Sellafield had damaged the company.
During Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Blair told the Commons: "Ministers have made it very clear to the chairman of BNFL that we want to see big changes in the way BNFL is run and managed. …