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
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.