LONDON - Britain's Labour government is considering the privatisation of nuclear waste and fuels reprocessor and power plant operator British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL), said the British Independent newspaper.
The government has appointed accountants KPMG to advise on a sell-off and BNFL has retained Rothschilds, but "the advisory work is at an early stage and no decision has been taken on whether to sell BNFL", the newspaper said.
The previous Conservative government had shied away from privatising such a controversial business.
"The move by Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, to appoint advisers shows, however, that Labour is prepared to contemplate a privatisation that even the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher shirked from," the Independent said.
Earlier this year BNFL bought the Westinghouse nuclear business in the U.S. in partnership with U.S. engineering company Morrison Knudsen Corp for $1.2 billion, prompting analysts to wonder if this was a move towards privatisation by expanding the business portfolio.
The Westinghouse company designs, supplies and services nearly a third of the world's nuclear plants and supplies fuel to U.S. and international customers.
It also designs, develops, manufactures and procures equipment for the U.S. naval nuclear programme.
Last year BNFL signed a nuclear services deal with privatised nuclear power company British Energy , worth 1.8 billion pounds, and took on U.S. government clean-up work valued at up to $7 billion.
BNFL got a 3.7 billion pounds dowry from the British government for taking over the operation of Britain's older Magnox nuclear plants this year and to cover the costs of eventually decommissioning the nine reactors.
Earlier this month BNFL reported a drop in profits in its last financial year but managed to increase the dividend to the British government to 53 million pounds from 46 million.
Pre-tax profits fell to 199 million pounds for the year to end-March from 216 million pounds in 1996/97 despite a six percent increase in turnover to 1.341 billion pounds.
BNFL blamed the fall in profits on incorporating Magnox Electric, but said it was on track to cut costs. The group's ability to increase the dividend was largely attributed to a seven percent reduction in costs, worth 57 million pounds.
ReutersLONDON - The potential nuclear arsenals of foes India and Pakistan, which both tested nuclear devices this year, could be far bigger than previously thought, according to the latest edition of Jane's Intelligence Review.
The leading defence journal said new information from the Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA) showed India had enough plutonium to make 455 atomic bombs if it managed to make weapons from reactor-grade plutonium as well as weapons-grade.
"Although reactor-grade plutonium is less efficient for nuclear weapons, India's plutonium, as is, could potentially be used to make 455 atomic bombs," the journal said. "This estimate contrasts sharply with the majority view that India can produce from 25 to at most 65 nuclear weapons."
Eight of India's 10 nuclear reactors are Canadian Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactors.
Together with the country's six nuclear research reactors, they have produced 3,299 kilograms of plutonium, 17 percent of which is weapons-grade the rest reactor-grade, the CNA found.
New data suggests Pakistan is capable of producing more than 100 atom bombs, "four times the number previously estimated", Jane's said.
Pakistan's one nuclear power reactor is a CANDU.
Some countries, notably Britain, have successfully made nuclear weapons from the less ideal reactor plutonium, according to previous Jane's articles.
In May, India broke a self-imposed 24-year moratorium on nuclear tests, provoking Pakistan into carrying out its own tests. The United States promptly slapped economic sanctions on both countries.
On Wednesday, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said he and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, would instruct their officials to resume a stalled dialogue process on all issues, including the disputed territory of Kashmir.
The two are due to meet in New York for lunch later on Wednesday. Talks broke down last year over Kashmir and the tit-for-tat nuclear tests heightened the tension.
JERUSALEM - Israeli police arrested 10 anti-nuclear activists as they tried to enter a nuclear facility on Tuesday to conduct a "citizens' inspection", fellow activists said.
They said the activists - including Britons, Americans and Norwegians - tried to enter the Dimona plant in southern Israel, where the government is widely believed to be producing nuclear weapons.
The arrests came after a demonstration outside the plant, at which the activists called on Israel to stop making nuclear weapons and to release nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu.
Vanunu, 43, a former nuclear technician at Dimona, was found guilty of espionage in 1986 after telling Britain's Sunday Times newspaper that Israel had built more than 200 atomic bombs at the plant.
He has become a symbol of Israel's anti-nuclear movement for daring to spill Israel's nuclear secrets and has served two thirds of his 18-year sentence. A parole board ruled in May that he should complete his term.
Rina Moss, spokeswoman of the Israeli Committee for Mordechai Vanunu and a Middle East Free of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons, said most of the protesters dispersed peacefully after two hours.
"Our demonstration is to tell the Israeli government this reactor and stockpiling and production of nuclear weapons is in violation of international law...This reactor must be opened to international inspection and supervision," Moss said.
"The second thing is the immediate release of Mordechai Vanunu who has been kept in solitary confinement for 11 years.... He is a prisoner of conscience," she told Reuters by telephone from outside the reactor in the Negev Desert.
KIEV - Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said on Wednesday Russia had promised to help Ukraine fund construction of two new nuclear power reactors to replace reactors at the crippled Chernobyl power plant.
"We fully agreed in Moscow that there will be $180 million in the Russian 1999 budget for this work (building two reactors)," Kuchma told a meeting of regional newspaper editors in the capital Kiev.
The Ukranian president met informally in Moscow last week with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and newly appointed Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, both of whom are preoccupied these days with a financial crisis gripping their country.
The West has put pressure on Ukraine to close Chernobyl for good after the plant's fourth reactor exploded in 1986 in the world's worst civil nuclear accident, spewing radioactive dust over Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and other European countries.
Ukraine promised the Group of Seven (G7) rich industrial countries in 1995 that it would shut down the station by 2000 in exchange for Western help.
But the cash-starved republic, desperate to keep down costly imports of natural gas, is for now still using Chernobyl's third and last functioning reactor to generate electricity.
Ukraine says it needs about $2 billion to fund the close and to complete two new reactors at its Rivne and Khmelnitsky atomic plants to compensate for lost capacity before it switches off the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Ukraine hopes to receive at least part of the money from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, but has grown impatient as the 2000 deadline approaches and only a fraction of the total sum has been raised.
"We will complete the reactors ourself or together with Russia whether or not the EBRD assists us," Kuchma said on Wednesday.
A senior U.S. energy official said earlier this week on a visit to Ukraine he hoped the closure of Chernobyl would be completed as planned by 2000.
VILNIUS - The European Union has offered consulting and financial aid to Lithuania if it sets a firm date to shut down its Ignalina nuclear power plant, parliament's press office said in a statement on Tuesday.
The EU and a Lithuanian parliamentary committee met in Vilnius to discuss the Baltic state's long-term energy sector development strategy.
Ignalina, located some 120 km (75 miles) from Vilnius, has a large RBMK reactor, similar to the one which melted down in the Chernobyl 1986 nuclear accident.
Lithuania, the most nuclear power-dependent nation in the world with over 80 percent of its power coming from nuclear plants, has committed itself to closinbg the twin reactors of the Ignalina plant in 2005 and 2010.
Many local industrialists have opposed the closure of Ignalina, saying its shut-down, to cost over $2 billion, would increase energy prices and hinder the nation's economic development.
Some experts claim that, after a relatively inexpensive modernisation, Ignalina could work until between 2020 and 2025.
VIENNA - The United States and Russia met on Monday to discuss the treatment of redundant nuclear weapons material and were set to make a joint announcement on Tuesday U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said.
Richardson met Russian delegates to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the head of the nuclear watchdog to discuss progress on an initiative for verifying and reprocessing nuclear material made during the nuclear arms race.
"We expect to make a substantial announcement with Russia tomorrow," Richardson told a news briefing at the IAEA's annual general conference.
He said the United States and Russia had already identified 100 tonnes of plutonium and nearly 700 tonnes of highly enriched uranium as surplus to defence needs, and that they had pledged never to return these materials to military use.
"Earlier this year, the IAEA verified the dilution of several tonnes of American highly enriched uranium - enough material for more than 500 nuclear bombs - into a form of fuel not usable in nuclear weapons," he said.
Richardson also announced that the United States would soon resume canning fuel from North Korea's closed nuclear reactor.
LONDON - Unscheduled maintenance closures at some of France's nuclear power stations have raised concerns in the industry that French monopoly Electricity de France, EDF, normally a net exporter of power, may have to import electricity from Britain to make up for the shutdowns.
Britain is the only source where EDF can buy electricity on demand from the wholesale pool arrangement. EDF is a large player in the UK pool.
In other European countries, where EDF is also a large exporter, the company has long term contracts which cannot be interrupted.
"We've already seen an increase in prices in the UK forward market, to reflect the fact that EDF had to reduce its exports to the UK as a result of the shutdown," said an electricity broker in the UK.
Brokers said EDF announced recently that it was reducing exports to the UK because of technical problems at some of its nuclear power stations.
EDF confirmed that a total of five tranches of an average capacity of 1000 megawatts each were out of production due to technical problems.
An EDF spokesperson said that "the situation was not alarming, and that EDF had their needs covered" in spite of the reduction in production.
Winter prices in the Electricity Forward Agreements (EFAs) market, the UK electricity forward market which trades over-the-counter, rose from 31.40 pounds per megawatt hour (MWh) to 31.80 pounds/MWh in the past month, brokers said.
The UK is EDF's largest export market with a total of 17 terawatt per hour (TWh) exported in 1997.
EDF said it was awaiting government approval, which is required in case of technical shutdown, for the start-up of two of the tranches, part of the Belleville nuclear power station, outside Paris.
The three remaining tranches, a new series of reactors which were put into operation earlier this year in northern France, had to be stopped because of start-up problems but were due to be back on stream soon, said EDF.
Also, a number of power stations were shut down for regular maintenance, but EDF declined to disclose details on scheduled shutdowns.
Reports in the French media suggested that ten tranches of around 1000 MW each were closed down for regular maintenance, but EDF would not confirm the reports.
"The regular shutdowns will not impact on our production," said the EDF's spokesperson. "They're planned in advance, and we take them into account to cover our needs."
At the end of December 1997, EDF's total nuclear capacity was 61500 MW, made of 34 reactors of 900 MW, 20 of 1300 MW and three new ones of 1450 MW.
In 1997, EDF produced 457.7 TWh of electricity, of which 376 TWh was from nuclear origin. French domestic consumption was 401.7 TWh, and 65.3 TWh were exported to European neighbours.
LONDON - AEA Technology Plc of the UK is part of an international consortium that won a contract to help clean up the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine, the Independent newspaper reported on Thursday.
The contract, worth around $5.0 million, involves improvements to the steel and concrete shelter covering the damaged Number 4 reactor, which caught fire in 1986 causing one of the world's worst nuclear accidents.
AEA, a science and engineering services group that was spun off from the state-owned Atomic Energy Authority two years ago, is a 25 percent shareholder in the consortium, which partners France's SGN and JGC Corp of Japan.
No one at AEA was immediately available for comment.
British Nuclear Fuels Ltd and U.S. partner Morrison Knudsen also said earlier this month they had won a multi-million dollar deal to help monitor the reactor's sarcophagus and begin design work to make both the outside shell and the reactor inside environmentally safe.
Cost estimates for shoring up the increasingly fragile sarcophagus - partly funded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) - have been pegged by experts at around $760 million.
Chernobyl's Number 4 reactor exploded in April 1996, sending a vast cloud of radioactive dust over parts of the Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and western Europe.
By Lisa Richwine
WASHINGTON - Forty-five years ago, John Sawyer was a young soldier who witnessed one of the powerful U.S. nuclear tests in the Nevada desert. Taking directions from a voice over a loudspeaker, he learned he was just 5,000 yards (metres) from ground zero.
Reason Warehime was an Army first sergeant in 1953, charged with leading his platoon toward fallout from a blast called Shot Simon. He advanced to within a few thousand yards of the centre of the explosion, which was three times bigger than the bomb that leveled Hiroshima in 1945.
Today, both men suffer from lung cancer they believe was caused by their exposure to radiation at the bomb blast sites. They are among thousands of "atomic veterans" who say they were wronged twice. First the military sent them into harm's way without any warning or protection. Then the government denied compensation to most of the former soldiers who became sick.
Most atomic veterans have died but the few thousand who are left are still fighting the government for disability benefits they believe are long overdue. They are pressing Congress to pass legislation to help them before it adjourns next month.
Warehime describes himself as one of the Cold War's guinea pigs. He remembers crouching down in a trench as Shot Simon exploded with no idea that his future health was at risk.
"The dumb thing goes off and it just compresses your whole body," he said. "It's so noisy you can't hear anything. Once the heat wave hits you, and the light, you can see the bones in your hand. It's like they were being X-rayed."
SOLDIERS HAD NO WARNINGS
The government estimates that about 205,000 U.S. soldiers were exposed to radiation at Cold War nuclear tests from 1945 to 1962. Another 195,000 were exposed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki where they were ordered to clean up contaminated debris.
"You take it for granted that the service isn't going to give you anything that will foul you up," Warehime said. "You just follow orders. They assured you that nothing could happen."
He and others first suspected their cancer was connected to nuclear tests in the late 1970s when news reports linked the two. Starting in 1988, Congress passed three laws heralded as major steps toward repaying atomic veterans for their service.
But the overwhelming majority of atomic veterans who have sought benefits have been turned down because they cannot prove their close encounters with radiation caused their illnesses. Congressional staff members and atomic veterans estimate that out of nearly 20,000 claims filed only 550 have been granted.
The problem is that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has set such restrictive standards few veterans qualify, says Pat Broudy, legislative director for the National Association of Atomic Veterans, which represents 5,000 veterans and their survivors.
Broudy's husband, Charles, who was exposed to radiation three times during his Marine Corps career, died of lymphoma in 1977. She and other widows have been lobbying the government for compensation for more than 20 years.
'WIDOWS PAY A VERY BIG PRICE'
"It's the widows who pay a very, very big price," Broudy said. "They take care of a very sick man, their income is drastically reduced when the man can't work any longer, and some of them are left with children."
It took her ten years of appeals to win benefits and now she is pushing for changes that could eliminate such delays.
The government currently lists 15 cancers presumed to be connected to military service. But veterans with other cancers, like Sawyer and Warehime, must prove to federal authorities that their illnesses started while they were in the service.
Meeting that standard is not easy. Veterans must undergo a "dose reconstruction" by a government defence contractor to determine how much radiation they encountered, and veterans and scientists have questioned the accuracy of the results, which often fall just below the level that triggers benefits.
That forces the veterans to spend thousands of dollars for a private diagnosis and wait for their claims to travel through the appeals process. Records to help their cases often have been kept classified or were not kept at all.
Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, calling the treatment of atomic veterans "shameful," sponsored legislation to expand the list of cancers presumed to be radiation-related to cover lung or ovarian cancer and brain and central nervous system tumours. The Senate is expected to vote soon.
A House of Representatives bill by Democratic Representative Lane Evans of Illinois would add ten more cancers to the list.
VA SAYS CURRENT LAWS ARE SUFFICIENT
But the legislation has run into opposition from VA officials, who say it is more responsible to review claims on a case-by-case basis rather than adding a new class of benefits. They say the majority of claims are denied because most veterans were not exposed to enough radiation to harm them.
"The military services have documented that individual exposures were, for the most part, so low as to pose little health risk," Undersecretary for Benefits Joe Thompson said at a Senate hearing on April 21. He pointed to studies that say radiation exposure has not led to a higher death rate among atomic veterans than that of the general population.
Undersecretary for Health Kenneth Kizer also testified against Wellstone's bill at the April hearing. But that same day he wrote to the VA secretary saying he did not think the agency's position was defensible.
In the memo, a copy of which was sent anonymously to Wellstone, Kizer argued it is impossible for most veterans to prove how much radiation they encountered decades ago. Noting that Gulf War veterans and those exposed to Agent Orange do not have to meet such strict standards, he urged the VA to support Wellstone's bill "as a matter of equity of fairness."
Atomic veterans hope the memo and upcoming congressional elections will work in the their favour this year.
"I think this is our last chance," Broudy said. "These guys are old and sick and they don't have much time left."
Sawyer said he still does not understand why the military sent him so close to ground zero on that spring morning in 1953. But what upsets him even more is the way veterans were treated after they became sick.
Winning federal benefits is not about the money, it is a matter of principle, he said. "As far as the damage that has been done, that has been done. But (winning compensation) would probably ease the pain for the rest of the days that one may live."