A swath of US firms are preparing to bid to oversee the multibillion-pound decommissioning of 10 obsolete Magnox reactor-powered nuclear stations, angering unions that want the work to go to British outfits.
The programme management role to look 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 Ltd, a company owned by Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions.
The reactors are being decommissioned ahead of the nuclear new-build programme and will be lucrative, with costs of at least £1bn a site expected. The US giants Bechtel, URS and Jacobs are understood to be mulling bids. Another, Fluor, is believed to have started putting a consortium together, while EnergySolutions could also bid, having already done the preparatory work.
London 2012 programme manager CH2M Hill is also drawing up plans, though 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. But even the British Gas-owner 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 after the owners of one of the three companies that are looking to construct the stations decided to sell up. The German energy giants RWE and E.on are preparing to sell Horizon, which has proposed stations in South Gloucestershire and North Wales, after announcing they could no longer afford to participate.
It is understood that they interviewed Rothschild, HSBC, KPMG and Nomura last week over the mandate to run an auction process. There is expected to be a lot of interest in the business, which could fetch around £250m.