Labour plans to spread risks in privatising nuclear industry

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The Independent Online

Industrial Correspondent

A Labour government would increase the financial risks for accidents and decommissioning borne by the soon-to-be privatised nuclear industry, striking a "fairer balance" for the tax-payer, according to Brian Wilson, opposition spokesman on trade and industry.

Mr Wilson also warned that it would "be incumbent" on any Labour government to cons- ider the issue of competition in the electricity generating industry, with a view to a possible inquiry by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Speaking at a London conference, Mr Wilson said that potential investors in the privati- sation should be aware Labour would consider shifting much more risk to the private sector in the event of a nuclear accident. He also said that taxpayers must not be left to shoulder an open-ended bill for liabilities relating to the ageing Magnox reactors - which are excluded from the privatisation plan - which could amount to many billions of pounds.

His statement will fuel the controversy surrounding the Magnox plants. The Government has said it will transfer the stations to state-owned British Nuclear Fuels, but BNFL has warned that it will refuse to take them on unless ministers make clear that funds will be available to cover decommissioning and waste management costs.

Mr Wilson said: "We cannot endorse a situation where shareholders will benefit from the ownership of the assets of the nuclear industry but where the taxpayer shoulders the liabilities. At the moment we don't have any clear statement from ministers of how future Magnox decommissioning is to be funded."

Mr Wilson also attacked the timetable for the sale - due for completion next summer - as "irresponsible" for such a sensitive industry.

He warned investors that a future Labour administration would reserve the right to review safety arrangements agreed prior to the privatisation and would, if necessary, take remedial action.

"There is a long way to go before privatisation is in the bag. There are questions which potential investors will be asking. Even more important, they are questions which the electorate will be asking with increasing curiosity as the weeks and months go by," Mr Wilson said.

Every opportunity would be taken during the forthcoming Trade and Industry Select Committee inquiry to raise the issues and he promised ministers a rough ride from Labour. The inquiry is regarded as a particularly important process in the case of nuclear, as no new legislation is needed for the sale.

Mr Wilson said: "We will alert public opinion to the dangers and deficiencies inherent in the privatisation case. And we will develop every option available to us in coming to office - if indeed privatisation has taken place."