Activists demand US ends BNFL contracts

A coalition of more than 40 environmental and anti-nuclear groups in the United States is demanding the US Administration suspend nuclear waste processing contracts with British Nuclear Fuels and bar the company from competing for US business in future.

In a petition to the US Department of Energy yesterday, the group cited BNFL's "global record or repeated serious violations of environmental laws, regulations and standards, as well as a pattern of lies, deceptions and false statements to the public and officials".

The immediate target of the group is BNFL's contract for a reprocessing plant in Idaho which is currently on the desk of the US Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson. He has said that he will decide by 1 April whether to proceed in the light of concern about BNFL's record. The contract is for a multi-million dollar incinerating and reprocessing plant at the National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in Idaho.

Citing BNFL's admission that it had falsified data about nuclear materials at Sellafield and the conclusion of the UK inspectorate that the company lacked "a high-quality safety management culture", the group said that BNFL's conduct should disqualify it from "participating in any work in the US nuclear weapons complex".

Beatrice Brailsford of the Snake River Alliance which monitors the laboratory said: "BNFL is a band of environmental criminals who should not be allowed to deal with radioactive waste." Referring to the company's recent apology in Japan, she said: "When you mishandle plutonium, saying 'sorry' is not enough."

Louis Clark, a lawyer with the Government Accountability Project, a US watchdog group, said BNFL's "pattern of false statements and destruction of records provides ample legal grounds for Secretary Richardson to suspend BNFL's current contracts... The company's poor performance and lack of integrity make it particularly unfit to undertake sensitive projects involving the most dangerous materials known to human kind."

BNFL, which operates in the United States as a wholly owned subsidiary, BNFL Inc, within an hour of the petition being made public, defended its record and operations in the United States. The data falsification, it said, was "an isolated case. It is not linked with the ground-breaking work we are doing in the USin helping to clean up the environmental legacy of the cold war.'

Stressing that the company's operations in the United States were already under scrutiny by the US Administration and subject to independent review, it said it nonetheless welcomed any review the Energy Secretary chose to undertake. Mr Richardson had told The New York Times the previous day that he was "uneasy" about some of the company's operations in the US and was placing it "under extra scrutiny". He also said he had ordered a team of Energy Department officials to be sent to Britain to meet investigators.

A BNFL spokesman saidthe company had received no such information. The word from both sides of the Atlantic was that BNFL was confident that itsexpertise, and the unique requirements of the US for nuclear reprocessing, guaranteed it would qualify to tender for US contracts in future.