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Friday, 18 February, 2000, 12:45 GMT
BNFL's troubled history
BNFL's history has been marred by controversy
British Nuclear Fuels approaches its thirtieth birthday facing one of the worst crises in its history.

News that it has faked safety records is the latest blow to the company's reputation.

The company may have spent millions of pounds on rebranding itself, but it has never been able to fully escape the image of contaminated beaches, secrecy and radioactive leaks.

BNFL has tried to change its image
That is despite establishing itself as a global player with a 2bn a year turnover.

Post-war birth

BNFL's origins lie in the post-war era.

Britain first began producing plutonium in 1947 at Windscale in Cumbria, after the then Prime Minister Clement Attlee decided to launch a programme to build a British atomic bomb.

This site is now home to the Thorp reprocessing plant and the world's first industrial scale nuclear power station, Calder Hall.

At the opening in 1956 the Queen summed up many of the hopes and fears centred on nuclear power.

She said the new power "which has proved itself to be such a terrifying weapon of destruction, is harnessed for the first time for the common good".

Trouble started early in its life, with a serious fire at the Windscale atomic works in 1957, in which large amounts of radioactive energy were released.

A subsequent string of safety incidents led to the site being rebranded Sellafield.

BNFL itself grew out of the reorganisation of the UK Atomic Energy Authority in 1971.

The Thorp plant is based at Sellafield
While two previous Conservative governments hesitated against selling it, last year the Labour Government unveiled plans for a partial privatisation.

The sale of 49% of the company could raise up to 2bn for the government.

Global vision

While its core operations have been based around reprocessing of spent fuel from nuclear reactors, the company has secured work from decommissioning and nuclear clean-up throughout the world.

With the purchase of US company Westinghouse last year, BNFL firmed up its ambition to be a global player.

"It is an organisation with the vision of becoming the leading global nuclear company," BNFL chief executive John Taylor said.

"This is a 2bn company with 50% of its business overseas and looking to improve the world and society we live in. How long will it take me to change attitudes ... or is it mission impossible," he said last year.

Westinghouse now accounts for about one third of BNFL's 2bn turnover.

The recycling and reprocessing business, including the Thorp plant at Sellafield, accounts for one quarter of turnover.

Magnox Electric, which it bought in 1997, is the only nuclear generating part of the portfolio and accounts for another quarter of BNFL's turnover.

In September last year, BNFL reported pre-tax profits of 228m in the year to the end of March 1999, up 42.5% on the year before.

The company employs 20,000 people worldwide, about 16,000 of them in the UK.

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See also:

18 Feb 00 | Talking Point
Can nuclear power ever be safe?
07 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
UK defends nuclear record in Japan
11 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
Japan rejects UK nuclear fuel
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