Should nuclear safety be sold?

The Government must not hurry privatisation, warns Tom Wilkie

Share
Related Topics
Will John Major's government accomplish the privatisation which defeated even Margaret Thatcher - selling Britain's nuclear power stations into private hands? This morning, the Cabinet is expected to discuss whether and how the sale could be achieved.

If it goes ahead, privatisation could raise between £2bn and £3bn for a tax-cutting budget before the next election. An army of highly paid accountants and financiers will make a killing sorting out the formidable details of the sale, but it could yet be snagged by the bureaucratic fine print of nuclear safety.

If the safety regime is not crystal clear, then "regulatory risk" - the fear that new safety restrictions might suddenly be imposed on a company's operations - will affect the price for which the industry can be sold.

Privatisation will profoundly alter the way nuclear safety is policed. In the United States, where there are many small investor-owned nuclear utilities, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a huge bureaucratic organisation with a heavily prescriptive approach, setting out endless checklists for operators. The NRC has to think through what could go wrong and what preventive measures to take, because it cannot always rely upon those it regulates to have the technical resources to do so for themselves.

By contrast, Britain's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate is small, cheap and efficient, because the onus for maintaining safety has always been on the large, well-resourced, state-owned operators. The chief nuclear inspector's task is to tell the industry: "Convince me that what you propose to do is safe." The NII then acts as a critic, analysing and testing the "safety case" put to it by the operator. Safety is internalised into the utility's culture.

Will a private utility be as willing to shoulder the costs of this internal bureaucracy of safety as its state-owned predecessor? There will be a tension as never before between the need to make a profit and the demands of safety. The NII will inevitably be forced towards a more prescriptive American-style model.

The British system depends on respect for the regulator, rather as in the past the Wimbledon umpire was always right even when he was wrong. But will the imperative of paying dividends to shareholders transform the nuclear industry from the gentlemanly style of Ken Rosewall to the abrasive confrontational style of John McEnroe?

There are already worrying straws in the wind. Earlier this year, for the first time anyone can remember, one licensee argued back when prosecuted by the NII for breaches of safety regulations. Traditionally, the gentlemanly thing to do was to accept the blame while perhaps entering a plea in mitigation. Significantly, it was a privatised company, Amersham International, which this year broke that tradition, pleading not guilty to the charges (which related to the use of radiation sources, not to nuclear power generation). The company was convicted on all counts.

Later this year, Nuclear Electric will be in court over an incident at Wylfa nuclear power station in Wales. The company allegedly continued generating power knowing that a component was adrift and lodged in the reactor. Nuclear Electric denies the charges.

One need think only of Chernobyl to see that state ownership is no guarantee of safety. But the over-bureaucratic US system, where every ruling by the NRC is dragged endlessly through the courts, does not inspire confidence either. The NII's inspectors are well able to handle even the McEnroes of this world, but the change of culture they face is so great that it may take more than a year to get the middle way in place.

The Government has only about a year to privatise the industry. Regardless of the political pressure for speed, this job must not be hurried if we are to retain faith in the safety of nuclear power.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
 

If Renee Zellweger wants to look different, who are we to question it?

Boyd Tonkin
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker