Union leaders are calling on the Government to block an engineering giant from bidding for a £6.1bn nuclear waste contract following alleged "serious lapses" of security and safety in the US.
San Francisco-based Bechtel, which managed the construction of the High Speed rail link between London and the Channel Tunnel, suffered high-profile embarrassments on two of its nuclear projects over the summer.
In July, three nuclear protesters – led by 82-year-old Catholic nun Megan Rice – infiltrated the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, which enriched the uranium used in the Hiroshima bomb. The protesters splashed the walls with human blood.
Bechtel co-manages the facility, though security is mainly provided by a division of G4S, the UK-based group which so spectacularly failed to provide enough guards for the London Olympics that very same month.
At the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, where Bechtel is the clean-up contractor, the group was accused of 34 failings in a leaked memo from the Department of Energy's engineering director on the project. Gary Brunson said that Bechtel was "not competent to complete" its role working on a $12.3bn facility at America's most contaminated nuclear site. Two months later, Bechtel was awarded only half its maximum potential contracting fee for Hanford, after the energy departments awarded it a string of poor marks against its performance criteria.
However, Bechtel is in the running for the UK contract to decontaminate 12 nuclear sites, nine of which are Magnox stations that are obsolete in the rest of the world. Most of the bid teams are understood to be major US engineers, as they typically have the greatest experience in this type of decommissioning work.
Gary Smith, the GMB union's national secretary for energy and utilities, said: "It's absolutely inconceivable that the Government can award Magnox contracts to Bechtel after these incidents in the US. The most important things are safety and security and these look like very serious lapses by Bechtel."
An infrastructure industry source said that it was an "absolute joke" that Bechtel should be allowed to bid for Magnox in light of its recent record. The company has worked in the UK on major projects for 60 years.
A spokesman for Bechtel, which is led by billionaire Riley Bechtel, said: "During our 12 years at the Y-12 National Security Complex, our focus on delivering safe, effective, and efficient management and operations has been positively recognised by the US government… and is fully engaged with the Department of Energy regarding a recent security incident involving three anti-nuclear protesters.
"The issues in the [Hanford] memo are not new—in fact, Bechtel identified many of the issues and Bechtel is actively working with DOE to resolve them. As a company and as individuals, safety is our priority."