And what a lot of them there seem to be, too. As tomorrow's deadline looms, the two front-runners are expected to be France’s giant utility EDF, and Spain’s Iberdrola, owner of Scottish Power amongst others. But a bid is also anticipated from Germany’s RWE, and British Gas owner Centrica is also keen to get in on the action, possibly as a junior partner.
EDF and Iberdrola are expected to submit initial bids in the 600p – 700p region, valuing BE at around £9.6bn. EDF – which has more experience of running nuclear plants than any other bidder - is reported to be making an all-cash offer. Unsurprisingly, BE’s shares closed up 16.5p yesterday at 734p.
But why all this fuss over BE? This after all is the company whose main claim to fame in recent years has been a steady stream of profit warnings and bad news about the condition of its fleet of ageing nuclear reactors. These have been plagued with everything from cracked cores to failed boiler closure units. Who would want to buy that lot? With perfect timing, BE’s largest nuke (at Torness near Edinburgh) broke down last month, just to remind potential buyers what they would be taking on.
The future is more important than the past, however, and it is to the future that EDF, Iberdrola and the rest are eagerly looking. The prospects for nuclear power in the UK are now rosier than for decades, thanks to the government go-ahead for building the first new reactors here since the 90s – a multi-billion pound bonanza for the firms that will construct and run them.
But where to put the new nukes? Public opinion toward reactors may have mellowed from the dark days of the 80s, but queues are yet to form at the ‘sign here for an atomic power station in your back garden’ window in town halls up and down the country.
This is where we finally get to BE's trump card – it owns all the existing sites. What‘s really up for sale is not a fleet of eight tired fission reactors but rather a very specialised land bank, probably the only places in the country where tiresome requirements like planning permission and public support for nuclear new builds can be relied upon. That’s something really worth having...