Several US companies are preparing to bid to oversee the multibillion-pound decommissioning of 10 obsolete Magnox nuclear reactors, angering unions that want the work to go to British outfits.
The programme management role, looking after some or all of the decommissioning, which includes Hinkley Point A in Somerset and Bradwell in Essex, is expected to go out to tender next year. Currently the sites are being run by Magnox, a company owned by the Salt Lake City-based Energy Solutions.
The reactors are being decommissioned ahead of the coming nuclear new-build programme and the contracts will be lucrative, with costs of at least £1bn a site expected.
The US giants Bechtel, URS and Jacobs are understood to be considering bids. Another US company, Fluor, is believed to have started putting a consortium together, while EnergySolutions could also bid, having already done the preparatory work.
The London 2012 programme manager CH2M Hill is also drawing up plans, although the Colorado-based company might be a less controversial choice as it owns the British engineer Halcrow.
The unions believe that a solid British nuclear industry could be established if UK firms were given the major roles and could export their expertise overseas. Even in the nuclear new-build sector there is only one British group, Centrica, in a lead role. Centrica, which owns British Gas, has yet to decide whether it will risk pushing ahead with the costly plans.
A spokesman for the GMB union said: "UK firms are unsure of nuclear and so are missing out on a global market. There is a chance for the UK to replicate what happened with oil in the North Sea in the 1970s, but instead we're missing out on a huge global opportunity."
Questions have been raised over the future of the new-build programme in Britain after the owners of one of the three companies that are looking to construct the stations decided to sell up.
The German energy companies RWE and E.on are preparing to sell Horizon, which has proposed stations in South Gloucestershire and North Wales, after announcing that they could no longer afford to participate.