A mandarin in the hot seat: Tom Wilkie talks to John Guinness, head of British Nuclear Fuels, about the uncertain future of a pounds 2.8bn reprocessing plant

YET ANOTHER postponement by the Government of a decision on the fate of the new British Nuclear Fuels reprocessing plant at Sellafield, Cumbria, is expected within the next few weeks.

Such a delay would be a great disappointment to John Guinness, the man who occupies one of the hottest seats in what remains of the nationalised industries: the chairmanship of BNFL.

The company has had a difficult year. In March 1992 it completed one of Britain's biggest investment programmes, the construction of the new Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) at Sellafield. Estimates of the plant's cost vary: the company quotes a figure of about pounds 1.85bn, but with the cost of pollution control and waste- management facilities, the price rises to pounds 2.8bn.

This masterpiece of civil and mechanical engineering, more than 15 years in the building, has been standing idle for the past 15 months. The company expected to have it operating by last Christmas; now the Government may delay until October, or even later, the decision on the amount of radioactivity the plant will be permitted to discharge.

In the meantime, BNFL says it is losing pounds 2m for every week's delay. By this reckoning, it has already lost pounds 50m, a figure that could rise to between pounds 80m and pounds 100m, depending on the Government's dilatoriness.

Ironically, Mr Guinness, the man who has to carry this commercial burden, is a former civil servant and government adviser. A scion of the brewing and banking Guinness clan, he is the son and brother of merchant bankers.

His transition from mandarin to man of the marketplace has been a strange one. As permanent secretary at the Department of Energy, at the top of the Civil Service tree, he was responsible for the privatisation of the gas and the electricity industries. In an interview with the Independent, he said he could have stepped into a job with a newly privatised company at up to triple his Civil Service salary. Instead he stuck with the state sector and opted to move, for about the same money, to the chairmanship of the most controversial of the nuclear companies.

In a way, he has the worst of all worlds. The disadvantage of running a state-owned company lies in its dependency on a 'sponsoring department', now the Department of Trade and Industry following the abolition last year of the Department of Energy. Yet BNFL is in business and has to compete in the nuclear fuel market, where there is a chronic over-supply of goods and services.

And all the time the company is in the public eye over its safety record and its finances are subject to fierce and sceptical scrutiny. Its chairman has to be a salesman not only of the company's products but also of a benign corporate image.

It is a very different world from the Foreign Office, where Mr Guinness started his career, or even from the stresses of the Department of Energy. Yet his connections with nuclear energy go back a long way. In 1970, on secondment to the Central Policy Review Staff, Edward Heath's cabinet office 'think-tank', Mr Guinness was assigned to reviewing British nuclear energy policy.

He tells the following story with relish; it is clearly one of his party pieces. On his fourth day at the think- tank, Lord Rothschild called him in to say: 'I'm having an argument with the Prime Minister about how one buys a nuclear reactor. I've fixed you up to see some people at the CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board). There's no hurry, I don't need the answer until 8pm.' 'Some people' turned out to be the then chairman of the CEGB, Sir Arthur Hawkins, and a senior member of the board.

After two stints in the think-tank, Mr Guinness decided that his interests lay with the Home Civil Service rather than the Foreign Office and, thanks to the nuclear connection, he fetched up in the Department of Energy. But, characteristically for the Civil Service, he started out in the coal division before moving to oil and gas, then returning to the electricity supply industry.

He moved to BNFL because he thought the nuclear industry would be the most interesting option open to him. 'I have been struck by the high quality of people working for BNFL: they are outstanding and able people,' he says.

The job, he concedes, is very different from being a mandarin. The BNFL chairman must deal with many politicians, locally and nationally, whereas 'as a civil servant one did not come across politicians in one's daily work', apart from occasional appearances before Commons select committees and when drafting elegant briefs for ministers. Dealing with the press is a comparative novelty, 'nor did one receive hundreds of applications for donations to charities', he says.

Sometimes, however, the mandarin shines through, such as when he describes BNFL's billions of pounds' worth of business as being 'a not unsizeable amount'. He insists that BNFL is 'one of the great industrial companies in this country', and that the Thorp plant 'epitomises all that Mr Major is talking about in the reindustrialisation of Britain'. It is a vast plant at the frontiers of technology, he says, and with two-thirds

of its business export-oriented, it provides jobs in an area of high unemployment.

One objection to Thorp, which is designed to extract plutonium and uranium from the spent fuel discharged from reactors, is that the Government's decision to abandon fast reactors has removed the need for such plutonium.

Mr Guinness believes, however, that the future lies with recycling plutonium from 'mixed oxide' (plutonium and uranium) fuel (Mox) for use in existing reactors. 'Mox may change perceptions over the next few years,' he says. 'We're optimistic. I'm very confident we're going to get the right answer.'

(Photograph omitted)