Thursday, December 06, 2001

Safety and employment assurances are being sought from BNFL now that the state-owned company is losing ownership of Sellafield.

Workers are worried about future job security because both BNFL and the UKAEA will have to bid for vital work on the site as the company moves nearer partial privatisation.

The new owners, a government Liabilities Management Authority (LMA), will take over BNFL assets together with the 35 billion cost of site clean-up work. The assets include the Sellafield Thorp and Magnox reprocessing plants as well as the new 473 million Mox fuel plant.

BNFL spokesman Bill Anderton said: "We will fulfil the current order book and continue to see more business for both Thorp and SMP. We will also continue to manage Thorp and SMP once LMA is set up in 2003 and beyond, so that is a guaranteee of the first year's work. There will be a government review the following year and then the award of longer-term contracts. It is up to us to demonstrate we can deliver against key objectives and operate the business as well as possible in order to win the contract to run the site. No management changes are planned. We will have to prove we are up to the job and remain so."

But David Moore, chairman of Sellafield Local Liaison Committee, which meets today, said: "A lot of questions have to be asked and answered. Safety and guarantees of employment are top of the list. What we often see with competitive tendering is a reduction in manning levels to meet tendering costs - that's something we definitely don't want to see happen. The danger is costs and profits coming before safety - Sellafield must not be dictated to by price.

"These are drastic changes. As locals, we respect what BNFL has done, so it is a worry that other companies could come in and manage the nuclear site longer term."

A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry said: "BNFL will continue to run the site until around 2004-5 or at least until decisions are taken about its future strategy including the public private partnership issue. BNFL already has signed contracts and will be getting on with this work.

"Once the legislation is in place longer term contracts will be looked at. A lot depends on how well BNFL operates and how well it performs."

Once the new Authority is established in 2003 it will "then contract out on the basis of competitive tender the work to operate and manage the facilities previously owned by BNFL."

BNFL said: "Under the new arrangements such plants as Thorp and SMP (Mox) will be assets owned by LMA. Because of the interdependencies of plants and systems at the Sellafield site, it can only be operated safely by one licensee. BNFL will continue to manage these assets commercially under appropriate arrangements with the LMA."

Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Patricia Hewitt told the House of Commons: "No change for the staff at BNFL arises from the proposals except perhaps the prospect of greater work as the company develops its business."

But John Kane, convenor for Sellafield's biggest union (GMB) said: "We have to be concerned.

"If BNFL bids for a contract and fails to win it, what happens to BNFL workers when there is less work? Employment is a major issue along with the continued high standards of safety.

"All the reassurance and environmental monitoring has always been done by our own people and we would be worried about anyone else doing it."

Copeland MP Jack Cunningham said: "Safety must be the No1 priority, whatever the changes. I am sure at the outset BNFL will get substantial contracts for work."

Copeland Council leader Robin Simpson said: "I have no immediate worries but we need to watch things."