BNFL role change slated as ‘excuse to do nothing’

British Nuclear Fuels will cease to own any atomic plants in the UK and become a science and technology company under plans announced by the Government last week.

The new Liabilities Management Authority will assume ownership of the defunct plants and nuclear waste at BNFL’s central Sellafield site and also at its operating facilities such as the £3bn Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) and the £470m Sellafield Mox Plant, which will start making fuel from plutonium next year.

‘It will be a knowledge-based company that sells our science and technology,’ confirmed a spokesman. ‘Everything on the Sellafield site would transfer to the LMA.’

Under the new arrangements, BNFL will act as the LMA’s paid contractor on the decommissioning of redundant Sellafield facilities and the treatment, storage and disposal of waste. It will also presumably pay the LMA some form of rent for the use of productive facilities such as Thorp and SMP. Removing the liabilities will make any future sell-off of BNFL much easier.

The proposal drew criticism from some experts, who said the new arrangement would simply transfer the problem from one publicly owned body to another, enabling the first to become profitable but getting no further down the road to solving the country’s nuclear waste problem.

‘It’s going to be a talking shop and nothing else,’ said independent consultant John Large. ‘All it will do is give the government an excuse to do nothing. I can be nothing but critical when I see that sort of structure.’

Although this contracting-out approach was successful with the UK Atomic Energy Authority in the area of reducing the estimated cost of several decommissioning contracts, the resulting exodus of expertise left the host body bereft of the necessary knowledge and the UKAEA was eventually obliged to re-hire senior staff from AEA.Large said the LMA would face a similar staffing problem. ‘How are you going to attract bright young graduates to decommissioning in those circumstances?’ he asked.

The BNFL spokesman insisted the taxpayer would get value for money out of the new set-up, through ‘highly incentivised’ contracts. ‘It won’t be the old cost-plus model, I’m sure.’

The Government will need to pass primary legislation to set up the LMA, which will take until 2003. It then intends to look at reviving the plan to partially privatise BNFL in 2004.

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