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The BBC's Tim Hirsch
"Not a company ripe for sale"
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Energy Minister Helen Liddell
"We want BNFL to raise its game"
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The BBC's Tom Feilden reports
"Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel might have made sense in the 60s and 70s"
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Thursday, 30 March, 2000, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
Sellafield affair 'badly damaged' BNFL
Plans for a partial sell-off of BNFL have been put on hold
Senior managers from British Nuclear Fuels have pledged to "put their house in order" following damning reports about safety procedures at the Sellafield plant in Cumbria.

BNFL chairman Hugh Collum - who admitted the company had been "badly damaged" by the revelations - was facing questions from MPs investigating the future of the troubled company.

The Commons Trade and Industry committee is examining the government's plans to sell off nearly half of BNFL, which have now been put on hold.

Mr Collum said the company acknowledged it needed more time to prepare for the sell-off, and said postponing it until 2002 would provide time to work towards establishing the "stability and reliability" of the company to potential investors.

'Real and lasting changes'

But he said the sell-off plan provided a "powerful incentive to improve performance".

He said: "We have a determination to make real and lasting changes. We are not complacent about the recent criticisms of BNFL and we are undertaking a thorough review of the company.

"BNFL has been badly damaged by recent events, but it is too important to just throw away in a knee jerk response to the current pressures and criticisms."

MPs were questioning the BNFL boss about the company's financial plans, especially after the recent safety problems put major overseas contracts in doubt.

In February, BNFL admitted that staff checking the size of mixed plutonium and uranium oxide (Mox) fuel pellets destined for Japan had faked safety records.

Pollution fears

Japan and Germany suspended all Mox imports from the UK as a result, and BNFL chief executive John Taylor resigned.

Mr Collum said BNFL managers would be travelling to Japan to try to rescue a contract put at risk by the scandals.

Sellafield has also come under fire from Ireland and Denmark, who want the plant closed because of fears over pollution.

The government had hoped to raise up to £1.5bn by selling off up to 49% of the company next year.

But on Wednesday it announced that the plans to partially privatise BNFL had been put back until 2002 at the earliest.

Baroness Symons
Baroness Symons: "Safety will not be compromised"
Mr Collum said BNFL might have to consider switching from nuclear reprocessing to storage in the wake of the data falsification scandal and its aftermath.

He said: "We have no plans to change our strategy. If we have a viable profit base we have no intention of getting out of reprocessing, but we must be prepared to look at alternatives."

Mr Collum said it was unlikely that BNFL would meet any of six targets set by the government for this year, including a 25% reduction in costs and profit improvements.

Committee chairman Martin O'Neill warned that the National Audit Office will be brought in to examine BNFL's report and accounts if they were not made more "intelligible and transparent."

BNFL's poor safety record had raised doubts over whether it should run the Aldermaston atomic weapons factory.

£2bn turnover

But the Ministry of Defence (MoD) gave a BNFL-led consortium the go-ahead to run the factory on Wednesday.

Defence Minister Baroness Symons said the government was confident that safety would not be compromised.

BNFL is one of the world's biggest suppliers of nuclear services and has an annual turnover of about £2bn.

Nearly half of this comes from fuel manufacture and reactor servicing, which have emerged unscathed from the safety expectations.

About one quarter of the company's work involves the operation of Magnox nuclear power stations in the UK.

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See also:

30 Mar 00 | UK
Nuclear sell-off delay
18 Feb 00 | Business
BNFL's troubled history
18 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
Japan vents fury on BNFL
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