The trade unions representing workers at Britain’s nuclear power installations yesterday announced a work-to-rule starting 19 November which may lead to a shut down of the eight British Energy nuclear plants.

A spokesman for the Prospect union said, “The industrial action will comprise a work-to-rule coupled with an overtime ban followed by a one day strike on November 29”. British Energy and the union yesterday agreed to take the dispute to an arbitration process through ACAS.

Tony Aldous, national officer for Prospect, said the unions were not certain that the conciliation will result in a meaningful outcome, but they were prepared to enter the talks in a constructive frame of mind.

The industrial action is being brought by five unions representing the 4000 British Energy staff who have rejected the company’s two-year pay deal linked to performance targets. British Energy is seeking to improve efficiencies against a background of a more competitive electricity market.

The unions are seeking a one-year, no-strings deal at the going rate for the power generation industry of between 3.3 and 3.5 per cent. British Energy has offered a one-year deal worth 2.4 per cent or a two-year deal linked to output and inflation.

If a shutdown occurs, British Energy will have to cover any shortfall by buying power on the spot markets and other traders say that there is some evidence of this happening already.

British Energy, privatized in 1996, can provide up to 20 per cent of the UK’s power needs but has recently called on the government to allow replacement of its ageing nuclear facilities which are destined for closure during the first quarter of the century.

Electricity traders said the wholesale power market was taking the strike news in its stride even though winter is the peak demand period because of reduced daylight hours.

“There is no price spike and we are not going to see power cuts,” said one senior trader.

“There is plenty of supply and it is not as if the power stations are going to shut down overnight.”