March 2000

US puts squeeze on BNFL 6bn contracts at risk as team is sent to check Sellafield

Guardian, March 23, 2000
By Paul Brown, Environment correspondent

[Posted 27/03/2000]

British Nuclear Fuels suffered another body blow last night when contracts with the US worth 6bn were put in jeopardy as the US energy secretary, Bill Richardson, sent a team to Sellafield to investigate the company's safety record.

Mr Richardson said: "Business as usual is over with BNFL." The company, already reeling after rows with Japan and Germany over falsified safety documents for plutonium fuel it supplied to both countries, now faces losing potential US business worth around 55bn.

BNFL has staked its future on becoming the world leader in cleaning up nuclear sites and the US military bases it is working on could provide 50 years of work for the beleaguered company. A decision on a further contract also worth around 6bn is due in August.

In an interview with the New York Times, Mr Richardson said he had ordered his department to send a team to England to meet British investigators to discuss the falsified documents and nuclear inspectors' reports demanding safety improvements at BNFL's main plant in Cumbria.

"We are now placing BNFL under extra scrutiny because of these problems," he said. "I have been uneasy about some of their operations in the US. If we uncover anything, I will take swift and strong action."

He added: "Business as usual is over with BNFL and with all our contractors, but especially with BNFL." The situation was "itching for stronger management review".

Concerns about safety lapses at former military sites in the US have been heightened in recent weeks by the fact that BNFL - the main contractor brought in to clean them up - is also perceived to have a bad management record.

There is also criticism because four officials from the Department of Energy involved in awarding BNFL three separate contracts had since joined the company as executives. One was awarded without competitive tender.

A coalition of American groups that has been pressing the US energy deparment for years to clean up its old weapons facilities plan to file a petition with the department today urging that BNFL be barred from government contracts, for lack of integrity and competence. "We think clearly a case can be made, and that the case is self-evident, that this is a company that does not possess those qualities," said Thomas Carpenter, a lawyer with the government accountability project in Seattle.

No evidence of wrongdoing has been found in BNFL's American operations and director David Bonser yesterday said BNFL's problems were caused by five workers in Cumbria who had falsified documents.

Criticism of company management by the UK nuclear safety watchdog, the nuclear installations inspectorate, has however already cost the chief executive, John Taylor, his job.

The latest blow comes as Japan is demanding that plutonium fuel sent there with falsified documentation should be returned to Sellafield. Britain would have to send armed ships to collect it.

Last month Germany suspended fuel shipments to its own reactors after finding that fuel already loaded into one of its plants also had false documents. The nuclear installations inspectorate is appearing before MEPs at the European parliament today to answer questions about the company's record.

Pete Roche, Campaigner, Greenpeace UK,
Canonbury Villas, London N1 2PN
Direct Line +44 171 865 8229 Fax: +44 171 865 8202

Back to contents