March 2000

BNFL's road to industrial meltdown

Financial Times, 30 Mar 2000

[Posted 31/03/2000]

The postponement of the partial sale of BNFL by the UK government is the latest instalment in a run of bad news for BNFL this year.

19 January
Kansai Electric Power, Japan's second-largest power company, bans BNFL from bidding for contracts to supply plutonium-uranium mixed oxide fuel because of falsified quality control records.

21 January
BNFL's nuclear fuel manufacturing plant at Sellafield, in west Cumbria, will remain closed for weeks while managers fight to avoid the loss of vital quality assurance accreditation, the company said.

17 February
UK ministers were set to call for a management shake-up at BNFL. The aim was to restore confidence in the company after Japan, the company's biggest customer for Mox fuel and spent fuel reprocessing contracts, banned BNFL imports.

18 February
The UK Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, the industry safety watchdog, accused BNFL of "systematic management failures" and of lacking an adequate safety management system. The government gave BNFL two months to suggest improvements to management and safety processes at its Sellafield site or face the possibility of some operations being shut down.

20 February
The damning report by Britain's nuclear industry watchdog on BNFL sparked renewed calls in Japan for a shipment of plutonium-based nuclear fuel to be returned to the UK. Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry and Kansai Electric Power Company have demanded that Britain take back nuclear pellets that were allocated falsified quality data by BNFL staff.

21 February
Germany threw into doubt the future of contracts with British Nuclear Fuels in a move seen further endangering government plans to partially privatise the company. Ten atomic power stations in Germany are licensed to use Mox fuel.

29 February
It is reported British Nuclear Fuels, in an attempt to rescue the timetable for part-privatisation, is to cull senior and middle managers suspected of turning a blind eye to safety practices at the Sellafield plant. The clear-out of senior and middle managers was set to follow the departure of John Taylor, the former Exxon Chemicals executive brought in four years ago to prepare BNFL for partial privatisation. BNFL is understood to be furious with the government for mishandling Mr Taylor's departure.

1 March
Norman Askew, the man recruited to rescue British Nuclear Fuels from its worst ever crisis, pledged to take a more pro-active approach to managing the company.Mr Askew was appointed chief executive of BNFL following the departure of John Taylor.

3 March
Denmark threatens political action to force Britain to halt radioactive discharges into the North sea from Sellafield plant. The Danish Environment Ministry said it might put forward a legally-binding commitment to end radioactive discharges at a meeting of north-east Atlantic countries in Copenhagen in June.

6 March
BNFL was embroiled in a new controversy after it admitted that it had suspended fuel deliveries to the country's biggest nuclear generator. Deliveries to British Energy were halted after BNFL discovered that a welding machine used to manufacture uranium fuel had "moved out of normal tolerances".

8 March
UK government plans to sell a part of its stake in BNFL received another setback when Germany joined Japan in banning shipments of mixed-oxide fuel from the company. Jürgen Trittin, Germany's environment minister, said safety doubts meant resumption of German nuclear waste shipments to the company's Sellafield plant in Cumbria was also "completely open to question".

20 March
The UK Ministry of Defence said it would decide in the next few days whether safety concerns would prevent BNFL from having a role in the management of the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston.

21 March
Privatisation plans were dealt another blow as Peter Hollins, chief executive of British Energy, told MPs that the electricity generator would not be using mixed-oxide fuel manufactured by BNFL in the forseeable future.

22 March
Bill Richardson, US energy secretary,orders immediate "top to bottom" review of billions of dollars of work being performed by BNFL for the US government.

24 March
Denmark calls for a halt to all nuclear fuel reprocessing in northern Europe following international concerns over safety at Sellafield.

26 March
Details of a sabotage attack at Sellafield revealed. Remote control cables connected to maintenance equipment were found damaged at the end of the previous month.

27 March
The UK government appears to acknowledge that the future of nuclear reprocessing at Sellafield was in doubt. Insiders said BNFL would struggle to cover its costs on reprocessing if its difficulties continued.

28 March
The US government adds to bad publicity surrounding BNFL by putting part of a $1.2bn waste management contract with the company on hold.

29 March
The UK government puts the BNFL privatisation plan on hold over safety fears.

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