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Wednesday, 7 November, 2001, 20:17 GMT
Power cut threat over strike action
Dungeness Nuclear Power Station in Kent
Nuclear power provides 25% of Britain's electricity
British Energy says it can not rule out power cuts if unions go ahead with strike action at Britain's eight nuclear plants.

They (British Energy) have seriously underestimated the strength of feeling among their staff

Terry Aldous, Prospect

A company spokesman told BBC News Online that plant shutdowns were likely if workers walked out.

He said it was "possible" that the UK had enough spare generating capacity to make up the shortfall - but there was "potential" for power cuts.

Nuclear power provides 25% of Britain's electricity.

'Strike inevitable'

Union members voted overwhelmingly for strike action at the eight plants after pay talks broke down earlier this week.

British Energy chairman Robin Jeffrey said he was still "hopeful" of avoiding strikes and had accepted an offer of mediation from the conciliation service Acas.

But main British Energy union Prospect, the renamed Engineers and Managers Association (EMA), said industrial action was unavoidable.

'Empty gesture'

It said the Acas offer was an "empty gesture" by British Energy, which had "seriously underestimated" the strength of feeling among its workforce.

Tony Aldous, Prospect's national organiser, said British Energy had "slammed the door" on further negotiations.

The likelihood of industrial action in the next three weeks was "100% - because the company have given no indication of wanting to settle the dispute", Mr Aldous told BBC News Online.

British Energy has not yet contacted the unions regarding the possibility of Acas conciliation, he added.

No safety risk

Mr Aldous said the unions were talking to the Department of Trade and Industry about spare generating capacity in an effort to avoid power cuts.

He said there was probably enough spare capacity in the system to rule out blackouts, but it could not be guaranteed.

Both sides have emphasised that safety and security at nuclear plants would not be compromised by any industrial action.

Strength of feeling

"The unions have never been linked so closely in any dispute I have ever known," Mr Aldous said.

"Engineers, industrial staff and administration staff are all united on this.

"They (British Energy) have seriously underestimated the strength of feeling among their staff."

'Going rate'

The five unions at the plants - AEEU, GMB, Prospect, TGWU and Unison - rejected British Energy's latest pay offer of 1.8%, with an extra 0.5% from next October.

The unions are demanding a one-year pay deal at the "going rate" of 3.2%.

The unions are also unhappy about plans to link pay to the performance of individual nuclear plants, although this was dropped from British Energy's final offer.

Industrial action was likely to begin with an overtime ban and work-to-rule, escalating to one day strikes or an industry-wide walk-out if demands are not met.

A full walk out is likely to cost British Energy a minimum of 2m a day, unions claim.

Reducing losses

Earlier on Wednesday, British Energy reported an improved first half performance, despite a 10% drop in UK electricity prices.

It reported a pre-tax loss of 17m for the six months to end of September, compared with a 56m loss the previous year,

The figures, which were better than analyst forecasts, were boosted by a first time contribution from its new Canadian nuclear plant, Bruce.

Mr Jeffrey said the group is considering further investments in Canada.

The continued losses at British Energy have put a question mark over plans to build more nuclear plants in the UK.

SNP shadow environment minister Bruce Crawford on Wednesday branded British Energy a "lame duck" that would "struggle to cope with the financial burden of any additional nuclear outputs".

In the City, British Energy shares closed 9p higher at 283p.

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