BRITAIN: Punch-drunk British Nuclear floored again

Wednesday, April 19, 2000

BRITAIN: Punch-drunk British Nuclear floored again

British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), already punch-drunk from a series of scandals in recent months, faced another crisis on April 13 after a large number of confidential memos were leaked.

One incident revealed by the leaked memos concerned Mildred Fox, an Irish MP who had written to the British government calling for BNFL's Sellafield plant to be closed because of radioactive emissions into the Irish Sea. Fox was told that her fears were "unfounded" — but she was not told that BNFL's draft reply was included almost verbatim in the letter sent to her in the name of the British energy minister. Moreover the energy minister's letter contained a paragraph lifted straight from a BNFL brochure.

A BNFL manager noted in one of the leaked memos, "In reply to an Irish [MP], we believe that it is important to be assertive and not to be appearing to justify or apologise for the UK nuclear industry."

Fox told the Channel 4 programme Dispatches, "I find it very offensive and condescending. You can get technical information [from BNFL] but you don't advise a minister on how to reply to a particular race of people".

The leaked memos also reveal BNFL's plan to "stuff" Michael Meacher, the British environment minister. Labour backbench MPs were to be urged to lobby against Meacher's plans for a public inquiry into discharges into the sea from Sellafield. A memo from BNFL's public relations director, Rupert Wilcox-Baker, suggests that MPs be asked "to stuff Meacher and the public inquiry".

Another memo revealed that BNFL and a government department were considering asking Jewish community leaders to try to influence Rudi Vis, a Labour backbencher. Vis, described as "aggressive and old Labour" in a BNFL memo, ran a successful campaign to stop trains carrying nuclear waste from parking overnight in residential areas in north London.

BNFL staff also deliberately "buried" information about plans to increase the speed of trains carrying nuclear waste through populated areas from 45 to 60 miles per hour. BNFL, in consultation with the department of trade and industry, drew up a public statement in case the media and campaigners started to ask questions. The only reference to the plan to increase train speed was the comment that "there will be some operational differences" made to the trains.

Another leaked memo shows that the department of trade and industry encouraged BNFL to keep quiet about its failure to comply with reporting requirements on accidents.