When he took up the offer to chair the new Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) last year, Sir Anthony Cleaver was returning to an industry on which he first made his mark nearly a decade ago.
The 67-year-old instigated the partial break-up of the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) when, as the organisation's chairman, he formed and floated AEA Technology on the stock market in 1996. UKAEA's commercial design and contracting capability was hived off into the new organisation, which is now a major force in engineering consultancy. Cleaver chaired AEA Technology until 2001.
Having forced part of the state-owned UKAEA out of the cosy, enclosed world of a monopoly market and into the rough hurly-burly of private sector business, Cleaver is a fitting chairman for an organisation charged with bringing competition, a clear strategy and a programme for achieving it to the world of nuclear decommissioning. NDA is required to operate very much like a private sector company, with the difference that the Treasury is its shareholder.
'I don't like using the term, but we have to establish a world class operation that maximises return to our customer, the taxpayer, ' Cleaver sums up.
This involves turning decommissioning strategy on its head.
Until recently the favoured method of decommissioning was 'safe store'. Dealing with nuclear problems was put off, where possible, until much, much later, in the hope that technological progress would deliver new tools, and that the natural decay of radioactive isotopes would eventually make it possible to enter and manually work within some of the world's most toxic environments.
But the UK's few active decommissioning projects have delivered some startlingly encouraging results. Not least, they have demonstrated that it is technically possible and cost-effective to tackle decommissioning projects sooner rather than later.
Cleaver wants to build on this by 'bringing in competence from outside the nuclear industry - that is one of the priorities.
'In terms of nuclear physics, the UK can compete with anybody. But there are skills in other areas, such as oil and gas, that can be applied to nuclear industry problems and bring benefi ts. Those are principally project management and scheduling issues, ' Cleaver says. 'It's not nuclear rocket science.' In an industry where costreimbursement contracts are the norm, Cleaver also wants to introduce cash incentives to encourage innovation.
'You have to look at whether you are incentivising contractors to go for really big improvements.
In the US savings beyond a certain point are shared. That can translate into really large sums of money, ' he says. 'Contracts will need to be attractive to encourage bids from the best companies in the industry.' Cleaver says the NDA is reaching out to the industry by communicating far more clearly.
'One of our responsibilities is to publish a strategic plan looking beyond our near term programme. That gives us a big opportunity to ask companies how they think we should be tackling things, and to find out what they can offer.'
Way to go
Cleaver's route to the NDA started with a degree in Classics at Oxford University. He joined IBM UK in 1962, working his way up through the ranks to chairman and CEO.
He currently juggles his chairmanship of the NDA with chairing the Medical Research Council and several private companies.