Nuclear Power Plant Sale Stirs Up a Fuss In Britain

Privatization in Two Nations

BRITAIN appears to have found a way of making modern nuclear-power stations pay for getting rid of old-fashioned ones.

By selling seven advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs) and one pressurized water reactor to the private sector, the government hopes to get enough cash to fund the decommissioning of its Magnox stations in a few years.

And there may even be a political bonus for the ruling Conservative Party. Government sources close to Industry Secretary Michael Heseltine say the reactor sale will leave up to 3 billion (US $4.7 billion) available to finance tax-cuts in the run-up to the general election expected in 1997.

Mr. Heseltine's arithmetic does not impress Britain's Labour Party opposition. Jack Cunningham, who tracks industrial policy for Labour, says: ''The private sector gets a cut-price bargain. The taxpayer will get the bill.''

To achieve its aim of privatizing the state-owned nuclear industry, the government has been forced to make what Donald Macgregor of the power-workers' union calls ''a shabby compromise.''

Instead of putting the entire industry up for sale, which was its earlier intention, it will offer the public shares in the modern stations and keep the six Magnox stations in government ownership.

Britain's entire fossil-fuel electricity industry was privatized during the 12-year Thatcher era. Then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher tried to privatize the nuclear-power industry in 1989, but was told by leading figures in London's financial district that because of the cost of decommissioning the Magnox stations, few investors would be interested.

Heseltine's nuclear sell-off aims to get around the earlier resistance. It is expected to raise 3.5 billion.

The government's receipts will be swollen by transferring a further 3.5 billion in cash currently held by Nuclear Electric, the power-generating company for England and Wales. Another 1.4 billion will flow in from a levy on electric bills currently paid by all consumers in Britain and Wales.

The total amount, Heseltine is hoping, will cover the cost of demolishing the Magnox plants and storing spent nuclear fuel.

Mr. Cunningham says the plan has little to do with long-term energy policy, but ''seeks to maximize revenue before the next election.'' He accuses Heseltine of intending to manipulate the proceeds of the sell-off. He will do this, Cunningham says, by deferring some of the Magnox decommissioning costs, and using the money instead to finance tax cuts.

Heseltine defends the sale by arguing that it ''will bring to virtual completion'' the Conservatives' commitment to privatize state-run industries.

In addition to the prospect of tax cuts, Heseltine has pointed out that when the nuclear privatization is complete, electricity-users will no longer have to pay the 10 percent levy currently exacted to subsidize nuclear-power stations.

This will reduce energy prices by an average 20 (US $31) per consumer per year -- before the general election.

Some analysts concede that Heseltine has come up with a clever plan, but see potential trouble ahead for the government.

Stephen Thomas, a senior energy analyst at Sussex University, says the plan will be perceived by many potential investors as ''a cynical tax-cutting exercise.''

Patrick Green of the environmental lobbying group Friends of the Earth claims that the ultimate cost of decommissioning the old Magnox stations ''will fall on the taxpayer.''

The government may also be overestimating the amount of money the sell-off will raise.

Mr. Thomas notes that the AGRs included in the sale, though not as obsolescent as the 37-year-old Magnox stations, are old and have a mixed efficiency record.

Another likely sticking point is that Heseltine has decided that before shares are offered to the public, Nuclear Electric will be merged with Scottish Nuclear, which is currently independently run.

In a bid to get over the objections of Scottish members of Parliament, Heseltine is proposing that the headquarters of the merged company should be in Edinburgh, capital of Scotland.

The idea has been attacked by Alex Salmond, leader of the independence-seeking Scottish National Party, and by George Robertson, Labour's Scottish expert, who said the proposal is ''a meaningless sham.''

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