First quarter of 2000


British Nuclear Safety Authorities Admit Pressures to Privatize BNFL Undermine Safety Inspections

WISE-Paris, 10 March 2000

[Posted 10/03/2000]

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 Sellafield plant.

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."

In 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.

Mr. 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.

He 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.

Questioned 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 next day.

Mr. 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?

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