Lawrie Haynes: Gunning for Big V

The group spun out of BNFL is ready to clean up
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Lawrie Haynes, the chief executive of nuclear clean-up specialist British Nuclear Group (BNG), likes to mix military metaphors with management speak. He talks of "attacking" the market and getting "access to a bidding machine" while carrying out a "Swot [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats] analysis" on competitors. He even has his own code word, "Big V", which stands for "big value" in clean-up work.

It might have something to do with his background in the RAF, which he joined as an apprentice aged 16 (he is now a trustee of the RAF benevolent fund). It's been a long journey to BNG, which has taken him via a mobile phone company (he was managing director of the forerunner to Orange), the Highways Agency (where he was the first chief executive) and the telecoms company Lattice, of which he was founding chief executive.

A colleague challenges him to come up with a link between his various jobs. He laughs, before answering: "None of the industries I have been in has been flavour of the month." People complained about mobile phone masts when he was in charge, he says, and he was blamed for roads being dug up. "I have never been afraid of a challenge. You have to be fairly resilient and thick-skinned. I think I can handle it."

It is just as well. Last Tuesday, Greenpeace protesters climbed on to the roof of the conference centre where Tony Blair was due to announce another energy review, looking at whether to build a new generation of nuclear reactors. Once again, nuclear power is a hot topic, but Haynes - at 52, arguably the most influential executive in the UK nuclear industry - is ready for duty.

The state-owned nuclear generator and reprocessor BNFL created BNG as a limited company in April this year. At the same time, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) was set up to take over management of clean-up liabilities from the public sector and BNFL. The NDA now owns the Sellafield site in Cumbria and four Magnox reactors, contracting out their operation and decommissioning to BNG.

But in a huge shake-up for the industry - which Haynes says is long overdue - companies will have to bid for the estimated £56bn of decommissioning work. By 2008, the NDA must put out to tender half the contracts, which means BNG will have to pit itself against the likes of US giants Fluor and Bechtel, and Amec in the UK. BNG is already preparing its bid for the first clean-up contract, for the low-level waste storage site at Drigg in Cumbria. The contract will be put out to tender in the middle of next year.

BNG was launched in response to the new emphasis on "legacy" nuclear waste, Haynes says. "We needed to create an organisation that was totally focused on clean-up, and move away from the other things going on at BNFL. There wasn't a market there before. We said if we're going to attack this market, we need to organise ourselves."

He admits there has been confusion over the relationship with BNFL, which is being broken up but still owns BNG. At the BNG headquarters in central London, which it shares with BNFL, visitors asking for BNG are told: "We call it BNFL."

But the confusion should not last much longer. The board of BNFL decided in September that a sale of BNG was the preferred option. Despite opposition from unions, which are pushing for BNG to become a public-private partnership, the sale, if it gets ministerial approval, is expected to go ahead early next year.

Haynes says a sale will help the company to compete for clean-up work. "It's an opportunity to get in people and resources who I know I need in terms of Big V, as well as a strong bidding platform and access to a bidding machine. We haven't had to bid in the past."

Unions are worried about job cuts, but Haynes says reports of up to half BNG's 14,000 workers being sacked are "pie in the sky". Cutting jobs - when the priority is to get the decommissioning work done sooner and thereby save money - does not make sense, he says. "Sellafield balances itself well with the local community. If company X came in and said 'we are going to do our own thing and chop jobs', I don't think that you're fulfilling Big V and I don't think that's what the NDA wants."

The future of BNG sparked fierce debate on the BNFL board. "We have come to a complete conclusion and alignment, as Mike [Parker, BNFL's chief executive] calls it. We have had big debates on how we would go to market, what our approach would be, whether we would go for partnership or a sale. It went in both directions at different times: challenge, counter challenge."

BNG got off to a bad start. In May, weeks after the NDA passed over management of BNFL's ageing reactors and the Sellafield site to the newly formed company, the Thorp reprocessing plant, part of Sellafield, was closed after a radioactive spill was discovered. Some 83 cubic metres of acid containing dissolved, highly radioactive nuclear fuel, had leaked out of a pipe. More damning was that safety systems detected something was wrong as far back as August 2004, but staff ignored them, assuming the data to be faulty.

BNG carried out an internal investigation, which it published. "I don't think you have seen many organisations in the past that are prepared to publish the board of inquiry report the way we did and put out a press notice with the word 'complacent' in it," Haynes says. "But it shouldn't have happened. I am not going to try to defend or condone what happened at Thorp. It was a fundamental error." Some staff have been disciplined, he says, but he gives no details.

Thorp, which is expected to shut down in 2010 when its existing contracts run out, remains closed. BNG is planning to reopen it this summer, but that requires approval from regulators. Haynes is optimistic. "I think it will reopen."

He evades questions about the merits of costly reprocessing. After all, BNG is only there to serve its customer, the NDA, he says. This diplomacy will serve him well in the energy review, which he also neatly side-steps: "My business is clean-up. I have spent the last two and a half years being particularly boring to my staff, telling them they are going to concentrate their lives on the clean-up of legacy waste. I don't want my people thinking there is going to be new build here or there."

But he can't help hinting that BNG - whoever its new owner may be (and he doesn't mind if it's a foreign company) - could play a part in any nuclear new build. "It's important we retain the nuclear skills in the organisation. The skills and people who have got that knowledge could be used for new build. Who knows, in five or ten years' time what the industry will look like?"

BIOGRAPHY

BORN: 6 December 1952

EDUCATION: BA in business law from Heriot- Watt University

CAREER

1969-78: Royal Air Force

1978-83: university (see above)

1983-89: head of contract department, British Aerospace (Space Systems)

1989-92: managing director, Microtel Communications (now Orange)

1992-1994: project director for restructuring and mergers and acquisitions, British Aerospace

1994-1999: chief executive, Highways Agency

1999-2000: partner at

PricewaterhouseCoopers

2000-2003: managing director of telecommunications, Lattice

2003 to now: chief executive, British Nuclear Group

Comments