First quarter of 2000
Nuclear Safety Authorities Admit Pressures to Privatize BNFL Undermine
WISE-Paris, 10 March 2000
In an unprecendented testimony the UK chief nuclear inspector admitted
that the Installations Inspectorate's (NII) capacity to carry out its
routine inspection programme at BNFL nuclear facilities has been undermined
by the extra requirements of preparation for privatization of the company.
The inspector, Laurence Williams, made the claims at a hearing on 7
March 2000 of the trade and industry select committee (TISC) of the
British House of Commons, which is looking into government plans to
sell off 49% of BNFL. The NII itself identified the preparation for
privatisation as one of the key reasons for BNFL mismanagement of the
In its report, 'HSE (Health and Safety Executive)
team inspection of the control & supervision of operations at BNFL's
Sellafield site', issued on 18 February 2000, the NII states:
"We were informed by [BNFL] managers we spoke to
that site -and company- wide programmes which are business driven (for
example, one element of the Beyond-2000-change-programme is driving
towards a 25% cut in costs) were diverting as much as 50% of their time
from operational matters which may adversly affect plant safety. This
led them to being unable to dedicate sufficient time to being on plant."
an earlier report, issued in September 1998 by NII concerning the Dounreay
nuclear complex, run by the UK Atomic Energy Authority, on Scotland's
north shore, the nuclear inspectors have criticised the use of too many
external contractors employed by Dounreay in the preparation for privatisation.
The contractors had been brought in as the UKAEA management sought to
reduce the high fixed costs of retaining expertise on permanent contracts.
Williams repeatedly stressed there was no technical difference in regulating
a private nuclear operator, such as British Energy, compared to a publicly
owned and operated plant like BNFL's at Sellafield. But there was a
business cultural difference, as the private sector owners are driven
more by economic criteria and responsibility to provide returns to share
holders. British Energy are always aware the 'City' [financial/investment
institutions] is watching them, Mr. Williams emphazised. But private
capital infusion arising from privatization could assist earlier implementation
of safety upgrades, he suggested.
said the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had said to him they
face the same type of difficulties in their privately owned nuclear
plants. They did recognize that a strong regulator helped make the nuclear
operator a more attractive business for investors. The acute problem
for BNFL at Sellafield was under-trained middle management. Some MPs
questioning Mr Williams asked whether BNFL's foreign aquisitions such
as Westinghouse or ABB acted as diversions from the UK operations. But
Mr. Williams said he was only responsible for UK safety issues. Yet
he told the MPs about this visit to Japan in the middle of February
to reassure the Japanese utilities-and Ministry of International Trade
and Industry [MITI]-of the safety of the MOX plutonium fuel exported
to Japan by BNFL.
by Plutonium Investigation after the hearing as to why he released the
reports on Sellafield to Japanese customers and authorities BEFORE the
reports were released in Britain, Mr. Williams said it was because they
were directly affected by the issues raised. The Japanese authorities
"always accepted that MOX fuel was safe", he said. He said MITI had
given the assurance not to circulate the report before its British publication
Williams also admitted a copy had been released under the same restrictions
on circulation to the Atomic Energy counsellor at the British Embassy
in Tokyo. It emerged the next day (8 March 2000) that this counsellor
was a BNFL placement, for which BNFL pays the Foreign ministry £500,000
[$800,000] a year. This matter has now been raised by MPs in Parliament.
Mr. Williams described the NII's relationship with BNFL as "very professional".
The NII plans to make visits to Sellafield in the near future to explain
to the Sellafield workforce what and why they have done the investigations
as they have. Weren't they talking to BNFL workers before?