can BNFL rebuild its shattered reputation? This is the man who must
provide the answers
The Independent, London, 19 April 2000
By Steve Connor and Michael Harrison
Norman Askew, the new man in charge of British
Nuclear Fuels, said yesterday that the scandal over falsified data at
the Sellafield plant in Cumbria has resulted in the biggest crisis in
the company's 30-year history. Here he describes for the first time
how he hopes to address the deep public disquiet over Britain's nuclear
Do you think the issue of
falsification of safety data relating to mixed oxide (Mox) fuel would
have come out had the whistleblower at Sellafield not come to us?
I do, but I guess you'd expect me to say
What makes you think that?
I think once it had got to senior management
level I can't imagine the people I know in this business would not have
involved the customer in discussions about what happened. Whether that
would have resulted in what has happened, I don't know. I think the
outcomes may have been different. Nobody in this company believes it
was handled very well.
Can you give any assurances
that the whistleblower will not be disciplined as a result of performing
what many would see as a public service?
think people on the site have done better than that. They have set up
a process where people can do that as a formal procedure and let it
be known across the site.
So you feel that if this
person's name is revealed that you wouldn't pursue any disciplinary
action against them?
I'm not in a position to pursue disciplinary
action against anybody. What would we do it for?
Can I take that as a 'no'?
You can take it that we've put in a process
for people to do this. I'd encourage people to do it through the processes
that are being set up. If they don't have confidence in the process,
we have to change the process.
The Nuclear Installations
Inspectorate was not told of the data falsification until approached
by 'The Independent' on 10 September last year. Was the head of nuclear
reprocessing at Sellafield told about it before that date?
But shouldn't you have asked
him when he first knew about falsification?
If there is one thing we didn't do, it
was [bring this to the surface] more quickly. That is a lesson that
has been learnt. You can talk to line managers; issues arise and you
think you can solve them, but I don't think that explains this particular
delay. It was too long and I think most of the problems come from that.
Could you ever make Mox a
viable business given that the fuel is much more expensive than other
the contracts in place for Mox are an indication that that business
can make money. The issue is getting those contracts confirmed. The
current situation has damaged it, there is no question about it. There
is no suggestion from Japan, which is the key customer base for this
product, that they are walking away. They are not actually falling over
to sign contracts with us and if I was in their shoes neither would
I. They will want to see progress before we get to a point where they
will say "OK we'll now give you contracts".
Will you be applying to open
the £300m Sellafield Mox Plant (SMP) before you get the Japanese contracts?
order to get it open we've got to show the contracts are in place or
strong letters of intent. We've got to get the customer to say "I will
place this amount of business". That's the point where you've got your
Are you planning to take
back the Mox shipment that has been delivered to Japan?
something we're discussing with the Japanese. But fundamentally, it's
a government issue.
When do you hope to get the
We've got to work with the Japanese customers
to get the approvals in place.
The Japanese seem so adamant
that they don't want to do business with you.
I don't agree with you.
You think they do want to
I don't think we have got any sense of
the Japanese being adamant that they don't want to do business with
us and that's a true reflection of the situation.
So is it just a negotiating
ploy on their part?
I don't think it is a negotiating ploy.
I think their trust has been sorely shattered, understandably. I think
what they are now doing is sitting down and saying these are the issues,
let's talk about it. That is not the action of people who are not going
to place business with you ever again.This is a long study process of
certainly months of rebuilding that trust. If at any time we're told
"I'm terribly sorry it doesn't matter what you do we won't place future
business with you", we'd let everybody know.
So it could take until this
time next year?
It could very easily yes.
Is there a point when it
becomes critical for you, when you need to open the SMP?
The answer is yes we'd like it to open tomorrow,
we'd like to be opening it now. [But] it is not a matter of weeks, this
is going to be a long, long job, we know that.
Is this the last chance BNFL
I never like talking last chances because
I feel there is always a wall you can bounce back off. But I don't think
it's a bad way of looking at it. I've said to people "we've got one
shot at this. We've got to be serious".