March 2000

BNFL pays to put own man in Tokyo embassy

The Guardian, March 8, 2000
By Paul Brown and Ewen MacAskill in Tokyo

[Posted 08/03/2000]

British Nuclear Fuels pays the foreign office 500,000 a year to have its own man working inside the British embassy in Tokyo with a diplomatic passport and negotiating on behalf of the government with the Japanese on nuclear trade, it was revealed last night. Tom McLaughlan, who appears on the official diplomatic list, holds one of the most senior posts at the embassy as Counsellor (Atomic Energy).

His brief is to advise on British nuclear interests and to increase trade with Japan's nuclear industry. The foreign office said last night that Mr McLaughlan was answerable to its officials rather than BNFL. He has been in the post since 1995, before when he was director of communications in BNFL's London office, and is expected to return to a more senior job next year. The nuclear industry has been paying for a diplomatic post in Tokyo for 20 years. Last night the foreign office sought to play down the BNFL connection, saying that it had a well-established practice of secondments from the private sec tor. But the scale of the payments and the full diplomatic status granted to Mr McLaughlan is unprecedented.

It was not clear yesterday whether the Japanese government knew that its contact at the British embassy wasfunded by BNFL. Britain's diplomatic difficulties with Japan over the revelation that BNFL had falsified safety data on nuclear shipments to the country will not be eased by the disclosure.

The Japanese science and technology agency was not prepared to comment yesterday. "It is up to the British government who they employ." A spokesman for Kansai, a private company involved in the nuclear industry, said it was not aware that an embassy official was an employee of BNFL. Last night a political row was developing over the disclosure. Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Nottingham South, said: "I am flabbergasted, it is outrageous. It is the sort of thing that might have happened in the worst days of the dying Conservative government but to carry it on under Labour - it is purchasing a government. It must be stopped."

Tom Burke, who was John Gummer's adviser at the department of environment when the decision was taken in 1993 to go ahead with the controversial 1.8bn Thorp nuclear reprocessing plant, said: "The BNFL man in post wrote all the official telegrams home even though they came in the name of the ambassador. They gave an entirely rosy view of BNFL prospects and contracts to say the least. All the distracting noises that might have given an alternative view were filtered out."

William Walker, professor of international relations at St Andrews university, who discovered that BNFL was paying the foreign office, said last night that senior executives in Japanese nuclear utilities had told him they had no way of communicating with the British government "because of the BNFL man at the embassy. I thought this was wrong and wrote to the foreign office about it but never received a reply." BNFL said last night the 500,000 was to cover salary, the cost of a flat, a car, language training and stationery. "It's a very expensive place, Japan," a spokesman added. In a statement, the company said it "rejects any assertion that the BNFL secondee to the post of atomic energy counsellor distorted messages from Japan". The post was useful to BNFL especially before it opened its own office in Japan in 1994, it added. The foreign office denied there was any conflict of interest. "The work he does is for the foreign office. He has to stick to the objective we set out for him. He is answerable to the ambassador, not BNFL." Japan is the only country in which Britain has a nuclear post, although there are scientific and technical counsellors in other embassies, such as Bonn. Over the last two decades, the government has sought to change the role of British embassies from being primarily concerned with politics to being mainly involved in encouraging trade. The process began in earnest under Margaret Thatcher and has continued under Labour. Given the shortage of technical knowledge and business skills among traditional career diplomats, the foreign office has had to look to the private sector. Businessmen and scientists have been recruited for two to three year secondments overseas or at the foreign office in London, and career diplomats are being given temporary jobs in the private sector to gain business skills.

Those seconded from the private sector are not normally granted full diplomatic status. Last week Mr McLaughlan was visiting BNFL headquarters at Risley where Japanese customers were meeting senior company officials. Yesterday he was on holiday and unavailable for comment.

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