Sunday, September 25, 2005

Nuclear power auction has Bush blowing hot,,2095-1795835,00.html

THE sale of Westinghouse, the nuclear-power company, has all the makings of a nasty little dust-up between Whitehall and Washington. BNFL, the British government’s nuclear arm, bought it for a song six years ago when atomic power was about as fashionable as flares.
Now high oil prices and climate change — two giant trends neatly embodied in hurricanes Katrina and Rita — have put nuclear power firmly back on the agenda. China wants to build new reactors, as does the US, and I would not bet against Britain doing the same once the main refuseniks in the cabinet have been booted upstairs to the Lords.
All this makes the once- unloved Westinghouse something of a hot item. Not only did it build half the reactors in operation round the world today, but it is the only company with a design that has received the stamp of approval from US regulators. No wonder it has attracted a dozen bids from a who’s who of international power, including General Electric, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Toshiba and Korea’s Doosan, as well as private-equity players.
Westinghouse was valued at about $1 billion (£563m), but with so many bidders, the final price could end up well north of that, and provide a welcome injection to Gordon Brown’s overstretched budget.
But there could still be a fly in the ointment. Although it is British-owned, the American government is likely to regard Westinghouse as a US corporation because its headquarters are there, its employment of American nationals, and its possession of some very sensitive nuclear technology.
That means the deal will probably have to be cleared by the US Committee on Foreign Investment, the panel that recently played a role in the Chinese attempt to buy the American oil company Unocal. If the committee blocks the highest bid, just because it happens to be from an Asian company that the US doesn’t want to see gaining too much nuclear expertise, it will be a sore test of the transatlantic relationship. BNFL’s job is to get the highest possible price for the British taxpayer, and Blair should insist to Bush that it is left free to do so.


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