'Intolerable'risks in Sellafield clean-up

Thu, Nov 8, 2012, 00:00

The multibillion-pound clean-up of decades of nuclear waste at Sellafield is suffering from “dire” management, the head of the House of Commons spending watchdog has complained following criticisms by Britain’s national auditor.

Following complaints from the National Audit Office, which warned of “intolerable” risks to the public from Sellafield’s 50-year-old storage ponds, management yesterday promised improvements.

The chairwoman of the Commons public accounts committee, Margaret Hodge, said some clean-up plans had been delayed by seven years, while 12 of 14 projects tackled over the last year were running behind.

Nuclear Management Partners (NMP) took over day-to-day control of the Cumbrian plant in 2008, three years after it was taken over from British Nuclear Fuels (BNF) by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

‘Poor planning’

The National Audit Office was highly critical of BNF, saying that the NDA had “inherited a legacy of poor planning and neglect over several decades”.

By last year, the NDA and its management contractors had come up with “a more robust” plan to deal with the nuclear waste stored at Sellafield by 2020, “replacing a previous unrealistic plan” left by BNFL.

The report says it is “too soon” to say if taxpayers are getting value for money, while “considerable uncertainty” exists over how long it will take to deal with “highly radioactive material held in deteriorating legacy ponds and silos”.

Sellafield will cost at least £67.5 billion to decommission and clean up. So far, 55 buildings been decommissioned by NDA staff. Last year, £1.6 billion was spent on both running the plant and cleaning-up facilities.

“Successive operators of the site did not give sufficient thought to decommissioning or retrieving and disposing of radioactive waste.

‘Storage ponds’

“Around 240 of the 1,400 buildings on the site are operating nuclear facilities or legacy buildings containing radioactive materials. Some ... pose significant risks to people and the environment. Any significant containment failure, particularly in legacy storage ponds and silos, could result in highly hazardous radioactive material causing enduring contamination, affecting people and the environment,” the auditor said.

Although it accepts the NDA and its contractors are doing better than previous management, it warns that delays suffered on seven projects this year have cost an additional £900 million.

In response the NDA said it is dealing with the clean-up of Europe’s most complex industrial site, where facilities, equipment and materials date back to the 1940s and 50s.

NMP, which runs the plant, said highly radioactive waste is being “repatriated” to eastern Europe and Asia, while 200,000 litres of “legacy liquid waste from a 50-year-old storage pond” have been moved to a treatment plant.

SDLP South Down MP Margaret Ritchie said Sellafield’s operators had still not said when new nuclear stores would be built, or how much they would cost: “[It] must be held to account and stick to timetables for decommissioning the plant,” she said.

Government welcomes ‘independent scrutiny’  into Sellafield plant

In light of its “long-standing concerns” over Sellafield, the Government last night admitted a report of the UK’s National Audit Office into the plant was “particularly” welcome.

A spokeswoman for the Department of the Environment said it was “important” the site and its operations were subject to “independent scrutiny” such as that undertaken in preparation of the report.

“We note the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s statement that it will continue to work to improve capability and performance at the site.

“Irish authorities will continue to engage actively on radiation matters of interest to Ireland, including in relation to the decommissioning of the site under the Sellafield plan.”

A spokesman for Friends of the Irish Environment said it was “critical” for Ireland to ensure a review of its monitoring and warning systems in light of the audit. “Any failure of containment on the site could compromise important fishing grounds and potentially even our own coastal areas.

“Given the UK’s very high reputation for all environmental audits, the report gives rise to the gravest concerns about plants in countries where such high standards do not exist.

“As we know to our cost, one country’s nuclear programme can quickly become a global problem.

“From the outset critics have held that the difficulties in dealing with nuclear waste on their own are so great that to use nuclear fuel – which is only another limited fossil fuel – will create more problems than it solves.”

Sellafield became Britain’s first nuclear facility in the late 1940s, and its reactors began generating electricity in 1956. Controversy over the complex was not far behind, however, with a major fire in a reactor chimney just a year later. This spread radioactivity across the surrounding countryside. COLIN GLEESON