April 2000

How 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

[Posted 19/04/2000]

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 industry.

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 that.

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?

I 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?

I don't know.

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 nuclear fuels?

I think 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?

In 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 economic justification.

Are you planning to take back the Mox shipment that has been delivered to Japan?

That's something we're discussing with the Japanese. But fundamentally, it's a government issue.

When do you hope to get the SMP operating?

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 do business?

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 will get?

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".

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