Tim Webb: The Americans will clean up on British nukes

As decommissioning deals go out to tender, don't expect a fair fight
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The Independent Online

Decommissioning is the ugly duckling of the nuclear industry. Why would anyone want to clear up the country's leaking, worn-out and grimy reactors when spanking new nukes with shiny knobs on will soon be built to replace them?

Well, for starters, it costs more to tear down reactors and make them safe than to build them. At the last count, it will cost at least £70bn to decommission the country's state-owned reactors and reprocessing facilities at Sellafield in Cumbria - and that's not even allowing for those plants owned by British Energy, which is publicly quoted.

This is not lost on the private sector. Companies that win the decommissioning contracts will also be in pole position to build any new reactors since they will probably be located adjacent to the existing sites.

The only trouble is, US companies - and not those from the UK - look set to benefit most from this unglamorous but very lucrative work. And, as we write in these pages, the way things stand now, it won't be a fair fight.

The bidding process for the first and largest contract kicks off later this month when an industry day is held for companies wanting to buy BNG. But the Amicus union is concerned that American giants such as Bechtel will grab the lion's share of the work.

The union is right to be worried. Some UK executives whisper the same fears.

The US companies are the best qualified to carry out the work. That's in large part because their government - the supposed champion of free trade - has made it so difficult for foreign companies, including those from the UK, to carry out any nuclear decommissioning work in the States, as nuclear consultant John Large points out.

Over the past 40 years, these American companies have been able to develop the necessary know-how largely without the fear of foreign competition. In contrast, the British government has gone out of its way to make the bidding process transparent and open to foreign companies. And so it should.

This looming row isn't about "Johnny Foreigner taking all our jobs"; the best companies for the assignment, wherever they're from, should be selected. But because British groups have in effect been denied access to the largest civil nuclear market in the world - that of the US - it hardly makes for a level playing field. Publicly, UK companies are upbeat about their prospects: Serco has teamed up with Bechtel and Amec has joined forces with the UK Atomic Energy Authority and US firm CH2M Hill to bid for the contracts.

The Yanks think having a UK company on board makes them look good and gives them better access to the Government. But unless the bidding terms are clear, the UK companies could find themselves on the sidelines once the contract is in the bag. And as the global nuclear market grows, with India and China looking to atomic power to meet their surging energy needs, UK companies face being left behind by their US "partners".

Don't do a Tony, Charles

So farewell then, Charles Allen. It's now a question of when - not if - the chief executive of ITV steps down. There is some suggestion that he will hang on at least until January, when he turns 50 and his generous pension scheme gears up. One sharp-tongued analyst warned him not to "do a Tony Blair" and announce that he is stepping down, but not yet. We all know what a mess the Prime Minister has got himself into as a result.

Mr Allen should take note and go once a suitable successor can be found - and not a day later.

t.webb@independent.co.uk

Abigail Townsend is away

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