The reputation of the nuclear industry faces further damage this week with the publication of a highly critical report on Monday on the management of the Sellafield plant in Cumbria, days before a court action over the illegal dumping of nuclear waste.
The moves follow Cumbria county council’s refusal last week to pursue plans to build a storage facility for radioactive materials needed, many believe, if Britain is to build new atomic power stations.
The Commons public accounts committee report claims that Nuclear Management Partners (NMP), the private consortium managing Sellafield, has failed to stem rising costs and delays in dealing with waste and the decommissioning of facilities.
Margaret Hodge MP, the committee’s chair, said: “Taxpayers are not getting a good deal from the [Nuclear Decommissioning] Authority [NDA] arrangement with Nuclear Management Partners.
“Last year the consortium was rewarded with £54m in fees despite only two out of 14 major projects being on track.
“It is unclear how long it will take to deal with hazardous radioactive waste at Sellafield or how much it will cost the taxpayer. Of the 14 current major projects, 12 were behind schedule in the last year and five of those were over budget.
“Furthermore, now that Cumbria county council has ruled out West Cumbria as the site of the proposed geological disposal facility, a solution to the problem of long-term storage of the waste is as far away as ever.”
The report, Nuclear Decommissioning Authority: Managing Risk at Sellafield, points out that about £1.6bn is being spent annually at the site, where a variety of hazardous materials – including 82 tonnes of plutonium – are kept.
The total lifetime cost of dealing with this has continued to rise each year and has now reached £67.5bn.
“It is essential that the authority brings a real sense of urgency to its oversight of Sellafield so that the timetable for reducing risk does not slip further and costs do not continue to escalate year on year,” says the report, from which some findings were released last November.
The MPs’ committee is suspicious that the NDA, a public sector body established to oversee the safe dismantling of the UK’s old nuclear power stations and deal with waste, does not have a tight enough rein on NMP – a consortium made up of Amec of Britain, Areva of France and the US firm URS – to properly control costs.
The report urges the NDA to work out how to better transfer more risk of failure to the private sector providers.
The NDA said great progress had been made in what was one of the most complex nuclear sites to decommission.
“Of course, not everything has gone smoothly on such a complex and highly technical programme, and the report has rightly pointed to areas where we and the site need to do better,” it said in a statement.
“We have a programme of improvements in place and continue to work with Sellafield Ltd and NMP to make continued progress across a broad front of safe operations and project delivery.”
Further criticism will be heaped on those managing Sellafield when a court case opens on Thursday that will look into claims the nuclear operator breached environmental permits in 2010 by dumping four bags of radioactive waste in a landfill at nearby Lillyhall without authorisation.
Workington magistrates court, Cumbria, will consider nine charges, although the law has since changed to make it easier for Sellafield to dispose of certain low-level waste materials at Lilyhall.
Management at Sellafield said they did not want to comment before the case, which has been brought by the Environment Agency and the Office for Nuclear Regulation.
The government is currently trying to strike a deal with the French company EDF on a power pricing formula that would convince the company to proceed with new reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset and elsewhere.
But EDF and other companies interested in building atomic power stations know that any bad publicity around the industry will undermine already-shaky public confidence.
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