OPINION: Editorial - BNFL sale must focus on safety

The partial privatisation of British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), the government-owned company which reprocesses nuclear fuels and decommissions power stations, was described by one city analyst as ’just about the hardest privatisation you could imagine’. For those promoting it, the sell-off of BNFL represents a much greater challenge than the government’s disposal of utilities has over the last 15 years.

The partial privatisation of British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), the

government-owned company which reprocesses nuclear fuels and

decommissions power stations, was described by one city analyst as ’just

about the hardest privatisation you could imagine’. For those promoting

it, the sell-off of BNFL represents a much greater challenge than the

government’s disposal of utilities has over the last 15 years.



The task involves more than simply convincing the general public to buy

shares, as Dewe Rogerson was so successful in doing with British

Gas.



The BNFL sell-off is not even about convincing the public that they can

trust private companies to look after their utilities, maintain and

repair them, and provide a service that is reliable and value for money.

The Government, BNFL and its advisers will have to convince the public

that their safety will come first even after 49 per cent of the

company’s shares are privately owned.



In the aftermath of the Paddington crash, the task looks daunting.

Railtrack is widely perceived to have put profits above safety.This year

has also been marked by a succession of revelations from Dounreay in

Scotland to the Rolls-Royce factory in Derby, that nuclear plants and

dumps are not as safe as they should be.



The privatisation will be particularly difficult for those charged with

communicating it because the nuclear industry is notoriously secretive

and yet, as most PR people would agree, being transparent and open is

the best way to deal with fears about safety. A lot of work will have to

be done, particularly with local communities, to convince people that

the sell-off is a good idea.



The communicators must also explain to the City and the punters

precisely what BNFL does. BNFL has traditionally concentrated on

reprocessing and decommissioning in the North-West of England, but in

March this year it acquired international nuclear fuel manufacturer and

reactor servicing company Westinghouse. A third of BNFL’s turnover now

comes from Westinghouse, and it employs 25,000 worldwide. The City will

have to be convinced that BNFL’s business is a growing one.

Decommissioning of nuclear power plants is likely to gather pace, and

BNFL has a pounds 5.6 billion order book for clean-up and

decommissioning work in the US.



Finally, BNFL’s sell-off could be hampered by the fact that it is

partial - the government is keeping a majority (51 per cent) of the

shares, and 49 per cent will be made available to investors.



With nationalisation naturally out of favour in the City, and

privatisation a little unpopular with the punters, particularly after

the Paddington disaster, BNFL risks being perceived as half less safe

and half less profitable after the sell-off.



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