NDA faces challenges in Sellafield clean-up

The National Audit Office (NAO) has released a report today (7 November), highlighting the ‘considerable’ future challenges the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) will face in cleaning up the Sellafield nuclear site, the UK’s largest and most hazardous nuclear site.

The NDA took ownership of Sellafield Limited in April 2005, and according to the NAO, inherited its legacy of ‘poor’ nuclear planning.

According to the report, ‘Managing risk reduction at Sellafield’, the majority of the NDA’s 14 major projects, aiming to create chemical engineering facilities to retrieve and store hazardous material from old facilities, have failed to provide ‘good value’ for money.

Twelve of these projects, which range in cost from £21 million to £1.3 billion, delivered ‘less than planned’ from 2011-2012. Potential consequences of this, says the NAO, are ‘delays in risk and hazard reduction’.

So far, 55 buildings on the Sellafield site have been decommissioned (1,400 remain) but the NAO found that ‘limited progress’ has been made in removing hazardous waste.

Further, a ‘substantial’ risk to the surrounding environment and population is posed by containing nuclear waste in potentially ‘unsecure‘ conditions, despite Sellafield Limited’s assertion that it undertakes routine maintenance checks to minimise risk, in line with regulatory requirements.

’Significant risks to people and the environment’

According to the NAO, some radioactive waste facilities have ‘deteriorated so much that their contents pose significant risks to people and the environment’, and for over 50 years long-term solutions for hazardous waste disposal have been ‘neglected’ in Sellafield Limited’s planning.

However, the NAO concedes that the NDA is now taking on the ‘significant’ task of addressing Sellafield’s remaining problems, such as the time required and cost of creating facilities to treat and store highly radioactive material currently held in deteriorating legacy ponds and silos.

Dr Ruth Balogh, of West Cumbria and North Lakes Friends of the Earth, has criticised the management of the Sellafield site, calling the condition of the Sellafield site a ‘scandal’.

"The UK's failure to deal with highly hazardous nuclear waste at Sellafield is a national scandal that poses a significant risk to local people and the environment.

"The government has completely ignored the urgent need for interim measures to deal with this radioactive waste.

"We shouldn't build any new nuclear reactors if we can't deal with the radioactive mess that's already been created.”

Concern over the management of the Sellafield site has also been voiced from industry experts, including Margaret Hodge, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee who said: "My concern is that unless the Authority holds Sellafield Ltd to a clear and rigorously benchmarked plan, timetables will continue to slip and costs spiral.”

Robust lifetime plan

The NAO report states that the owners of Sellafield cannot predict how long it will take to build new hazardous waste storage and treatment facilities, or how much it will eventually cost to decommission the plant.

It adds that ‘despite efforts to improve project performance’, it is ‘too early’ to say whether the shift of ownership to Nuclear Management Partners Limited, appointed by the authority, has delivered value for money.

However, the NAO has praised the NDA for updating the site’s previously ‘unrealistic’ lifetime plan, with one significantly ‘more robust’, which aims to clean up Sellafield by 2120.

Amyas Morse, Head of the National Audit Office, said today (7 November): "Owing to historic neglect, the Authority faces a considerable challenge in taking forward decommissioning at Sellafield. It is good that the Authority now has a more robust lifetime plan in place but it cannot say with certainty how long it will take to deal with hazardous radioactive waste at Sellafield or how much it will cost.”

According to the NAO, the new lifetime plan contributed to an increase of the Authority’s provision for decommissioning the site, seeing costs rise from £47 billion in March 2009 to £67 billion in March 2012.

"Securing future value for money will depend on the Authority’s ability to act as an intelligent client, to benchmark proposed levels of performance and to provide better contractual incentives for making faster progress towards risk and hazard reduction", Morse added.

The parent body has also reportedly improved commercial operations onsite, including the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, and expects to deliver at least 80 per cent of its planned savings of £1.4 billion.

'Strengthening approach'

Sellafield Limited has released a statement on its website saying that it welcomes the report findings and will take steps to strengthen their future efforts.

"We welcome the report and are pleased that the NAO recognise the globally unique challenge we are facing in cleaning up and decommissioning the site... and we have already taken steps to strengthen our approach, both in terms of how we manage projects as a whole and how we develop better, more beneficial relationships with the supply chain.

"During the four years since NMP took over the management of Sellafield Ltd we have recorded confirmed savings of over £425 million, with a further £270 million awaiting verification by the NDA. That’s a total of over £695 million saved.

"We’ve also begun the programme to repatriate highly active waste consignments to their countries of origin in Europe and the Far East and recovered over 200,000 litres of legacy liquid waste from a 50-year-old storage pond into a treatment plant."

Sellafield goes on to say that their future plan sets out what they will be doing in the future to remove the risk of nuclear waste and puts governance in place to 'properly enable' the NDA to monitor progress and 'hold [them] to account.'

Underground hazardous waste disposal

The need to find underground storage for nuclear waste is a growing issue in the UK, all currently all hazardous waste in the UK is contained in surface-level stores across the country.

So far, West Cumbria is the only region to have seen residents back plans for an underground nuclear waste repository site to be built in their area. It remains a controversial question however, with plans for a nuclear disposal facility in Romney Marsh being rejected by Kent’s Shepway Council in September of this year.

Despite such concerns the UK government is welcoming investment in nuclear energy, backing Hitachi Ltd’s recent purchase of the Horizon Nuclear Project, previously managed by E.ON and RWE. The £700 million transaction marks a boost for the UK nuclear energy industry, and the planned facilities are expected to provide energy for 14 million homes over 60 years.

Read the National Audit Office’s report ‘Managing risk reduction at Sellafield’.