U.S. pressuring U.K. on Westinghouse sale

LONDON - British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) has owned Westinghouse since 1999. But now three heavyweight Japanese and South Korean companies are bidding to take it over amid U.S. concerns that foreign ownership of a major nuclear energy company could threaten national security. As a result, pressure is mounting on the British government, which owns BNFL, to sell the company to a U.S. business, according to the U.K.'s Independent newspaper.

Among the contenders are Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a long-time business partner of Westinghouse, and Toshiba, as well South Korea's Doosan Heavy Industries. But the most likely winner is apt to be General Electric, which has teamed up with the New York-based hedge fund Cerberus and Louisiana-based Shaw.

NM Rothschild, BNFL's banker, is considering the offers. The British government wants to sell in part because nuclear assets bring a high price, but also to remove the risk of possible accidents from being a public responsibility.

Richard Shelby, chairman of the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, is one of several politicians who want to investigate potential national security threats of foreign ownership of U.S.-based companies. A move last summer by China's CNOOC to buy Unocal, the California-based oil company, caused anxiety on Capitol Hill. Although the White House-controlled Committee on Foreign Investments reviews such bids, it never had to rule on the Unocal bid because CNOOC pulled out.

Since Westinghouse operates in the nuclear sector, with military applications, any foreign buyer will find it difficult to overcome the national security concerns. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission will also review any deal.