EDF background: Takeover agreed after offer increase

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The Independent Online

The takeover of British Energy (BE) comes two months later than expected after 11th-hour opposition from two of its major investors derailed an earlier deal.

The August drama was a fitting twist in the eventful history of the nuclear power firm created little more than a decade ago.

French power giant EDF was within touching distance of a £12 billion deal before institutional shareholders Invesco and M&G blocked the move on price grounds.

The duo opposed the 765p offer on the table as undervaluing BE at a time when the value of energy assets was rising.

But the higher 774p price now on offer has seen them swing behind the deal - which puts the UK's nuclear destiny in the hands of a firm majority-owned by the French Government.

The UK's biggest producer of nuclear power - responsible for one-sixth of the nation's electricity needs - had to be rescued by the Government in 2002, but is now seen as a pivotal player in developing a new fleet of nuclear reactors.

EDF's offer is more than 100 times the £90 million value of the company in October 2004, when the group's shares were delisted under a financial overhaul which all but wiped out former investors.

The creation of BE, which has around 6,000 staff, was one of the last major privatisations of the Conservative years and completed in 1996.

It brought together the UK's eight most modern nuclear reactors - at Hinkley Point, Somerset; Hunterston, Ayrshire; Dungeness, Kent; two at Heysham, Lancashire; Hartlepool; Torness, East Lothian; and Sizewell, Suffolk. The group later added the Eggborough coal-fired plant near Leeds.

But the company's financial performance in the years following privatisation was crippled by "unprecedented" falls in wholesale electricity prices - in stark contrast to inflation-busting hikes hitting households this year.

These resulted in losses of nearly £500 million for the firm in 2002.

In September 2002, the East Kilbride-based firm admitted that it could face insolvency due to the slumping prices and began talks with the Government over a bailout.

This arrived in the form of a £650 million public loan to help keep the business afloat.

Under a Government-based scheme drawn up in October 2003 and completed in early 2005, banks and bondholders wrote off around £1.3 billion in debt in return for control of the group - leaving shareholders with just 2.5 per cent of a newly created company.

Without the debt-for-equity swap, which also required the support of the European Commission, BE would have been doomed.

It also left the Government holding a 65 per cent share in a business taken out of public ownership less than 10 years earlier.

The rescue also saw the Government shouldering the responsibility for underwriting the Nuclear Liabilities Fund (NLF), a subsidiary of the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform which will meet BE's decommissioning costs.

Last year the Government raised £2.34 billion through reducing its stake in the firm to 36 per cent, with proceeds also going towards the NFL.

The financial rescue also came with a warning from company chiefs that it would take time for BE to address "past under-investment and unacceptable output".

BE's stations at Hartlepool and Heysham were hit last year by wire corrosion issues within boiler units, following long-running problems at Hinkley Point and Hunterston which also affected power production.

But the firm, which invested £283 million in its plant in the year to March in a bid to tackle the lingering output problems, has seen a strong recovery in stock market fortunes in recent years.

This has come as politicians grappling with climate change increasingly look upon nuclear as the greenest solution to securing the UK's energy needs amid dwindling North Sea oil and gas stocks.

Just a year after BE's rescue was sealed, the group rejoined the FTSE 100 Index in early 2006 and this year, its shares have almost doubled since it first confirmed takeover approaches back in March.

The company is seen as crucial to the development of the next generation of nuclear power as the new plants - are likely to be built on the current sites it owns.

Chief executive Bill Coley said in May: "We are uniquely positioned to participate in nuclear new build.

"Our sites are particularly attractive assets for a new build programme and we seek to maximise the value of those sites for our shareholders."

With wholesale electricity prices pushed ever-higher by soaring gas and oil prices providing a strong overall trading environment, the company which was fighting for its very existence less than six years ago could tell investors in June that a round of initial approaches undervalued the business and its prospects.

While BE shareholders will welcome a deal, EDF is likely to be just as keen to position itself for the UK's next major nuclear building programme.

British Gas owner Centrica is expected to take a minority stake in the business following the takeover, after drawing up plans for an all-share merger with BE if the deal with EDF collapsed.