BNFL privatisation viable only if safety structure is streamlined

The UK's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) has told a Parliamentary committee that partial privatisation of British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) would not pose a threat to safety provided an overly complicated company structure is avoided.

NII officials gave evidence at a meeting of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Select Committee on 7 March, at which they sought to reassure Committee members that the NII’s regulatory powers would not be compromised if BNFL’s partial privatisation goes ahead.

The new CEO of BNFL, Norman Askew (see related story), has acknowledged that the Government’s plans to partially privatise the company have been delayed following the scandal surrounding falsification of safety data (see related story).

Citing the now privately-owned British Energy as an example, which holds nuclear site licences, Lawrence Williams, chief inspector of NII, told the DTI Select Committee that he’s “seen no significant difference yet between public and private operators’ responses to our regulation of the industry”.

What worries Williams is economic pressure to ‘downsize’, whether it is a private or public body is irrelevant. Williams told members of the Committee that cuts in BNFL staff and outsourcing that began in the mid-90s, combined with the introduction of an overly-complicated management structure, created the atmosphere that allowed the falsification of safety data for MOX re-processed fuel pellets to take place. “The MOX problems primarily stem from people not doing what they were supposed to be doing and a management structure that allowed it to happen,” said Williams.

Asked to discuss whether private companies are willing to undertake de-commissioning as and when it is required, NII officials admitted that because “there’s no income to be made from de-commissioning there can be a risk that it is put off”.

Whatever decision is made regarding the partial privatisation of BNFL, NII officials would like the future structure of the company to be simplified so that the chain of responsibility in terms of safety is perfectly clear. NII has requested that BNFL provide it with a Sellafield action plan within two months.

“Our view is that things started to go wrong at BNFL in the mid-90s when Sellafield was broken up into a lot of different companies,” said Williams, whose inspectors began to pick up on problems by 1998. NII employs eight full-time inspectors at Sellafield and is currently seeking to recruit more inspectors for its UK-wide inspection programme.

Another blow was dealt BNFL’s MOX fuel reprocessing business this week, when the German Government announced a ban on imports from BNFL’s Sellafield facility until it is satisfied that safety procedures have been improved. A large portion of Sellafield’s contracts are with German electricity generators (see related story).

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