A scathing report from parliament’s Public Accounts Committee has voiced concerns about the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s ability to oversee the agency tasked with cleaning up the UK’s former civil nuclear sites.
MPs said that three years and £140m in settlement fees on from the procurement debacle surrounding the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s failed Magnox contract, the authority still did not have a clear understanding of the state of the 17 sites in its portfolio.
The £6.1bn Magnox contract with joint venture Cavendish Fluor Partnership was designed to bring former nuclear research sites and Magnox power stations to the “care and maintenance” stage of the decommissioning process. It was cancelled because of a “significant mismatch” between the specified work and the services actually required, although Cavendish Fluor completed £2.7bn of clean-up work.
The National Audit Office recently said estimates for the outstanding work to get the sites to the “care and maintenance” stage ranged from £6.9bn to £8.7bn. The NDA’s best estimate on the full clean-up of the sites is that work will cost £132bn and take 120 years.
In today's report, PAC members said past experience suggested the projections would soon be out of date and that costs could increase further because the authority had a “perpetual lack of knowledge” about site conditions. MPs noted that, when pressed, the NDA had admitted it would not be possible to give a “full and final figure” before work had actually completed.
A legacy of “very poor” record keeping dating back to the 1940s and the presence of asbestos in structures at the civil nuclear sites means estimates for clean-up work constantly need to be updated, based on first-hand assessments as work continues.
PAC members accepted that the NDA and BEIS appeared to have made progress in the three years since it was announced that the Magnox contract would be cancelled. New measures include a dedicated team in BEIS that is looking at the NDA and a representative of UK Government Investments on the NDA’s board who reports to the department’s accounting officer, Sarah Munby.
But MPs said there were still question marks about whether BEIS had the “strong oversight” of NDA that would be required to make the new decommissioning model being pursued by the authority work.
“We remain concerned about the department’s capacity to oversee the NDA effectively, and about the number of players from different parts of government who are involved,” MPs said.
They added that learning the lessons from the yet-to-be-published independent inquiry into the Magnox contract mishandling, headed up by former National Grid chief executive Steve Holliday, would be vital – as would BEIS’s also-unpublished tailored review of the NDA.
“It is frustrating and concerning that it is taking so long for these important reviews to be published,” they said.
The report said BEIS hoped to publish the Holliday report “imminently” and blamed legal challenges for the delay but insisted the “most important forward-looking actions” recommended in an interim version had already been taken. It added that BEIS had pledged the tailored review would be published before the end of the year.
PAC deputy chair Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said the UK had internationally renowned expertise in nuclear decommissioning and the NDA needed to make better use of it.
“Incredibly, the NDA still doesn’t know even where we’re currently at, in terms of state and safety of the UK’s disused nuclear sites,” he said.
“Without that, and after the serious knock to the NDA’s reputation in the Magnox contracting disaster, it is hard to have confidence in future plans or estimates.
“The UK nuclear industry has valuable technical skills and is still a world leader in nuclear decommissioning technology. The NDA, with stronger, better oversight from government, must make a clear break with the incompetence and failures of the past and step up to maximise these assets, and the astronomical sums of taxpayers’ money it has absorbed, for the benefit of local communities and the post-Covid recovery of the UK economy as a whole.”
Clifton-Brown said the NDA should be helping to export the UK’s nuclear-decommissioning capabilities the world over, instead of being a “damaging drain on resources”.
Among its recommendations, the PAC said the authority needed to prioritise plans to find a location for a “geological disposal facility” that would reduce the need for interim storage of highly-radioactive waste at other locations set for decommissioning, saving money in the process.
MPs said BEIS needed to explain why it relied on UK Government Investments to represent it on the NDA board. They also called on the depatment and the NDA to publish a detailed plan of how it was envisaged the UK nuclear industry would meet the demand for skills over the next five-to-10 years.
Additionally, MPs said the NDA needed to develop a strategy for maximising the economic benefits of developing and exporting its knowledge and assets to alleviate the burden on the taxpayer. The report acknowledged its commercial work already generated about £800m a year.
A BEIS spokesperson said managing the UK’s civil nuclear legacy was an “extremely complex and challenging” programme.
“The report rightly recognises the steps we have taken to strengthen our oversight of the NDA,” they said.
“As part of its mission to clean up the UK’s nuclear legacy safely, we will ensure that the NDA applies lessons learnt in its future work to ensure value for money for the taxpayer”.
The NDA said it welcomed the PAC’s scrutiny but disagreed with any suggestion that safety was a grey area.
“Safety is our priority and we do not accept the committee’s suggestions that we may not understand the safety of our sites,” a spokesperson said.
“Our work is tightly and independently regulated to ensure we uphold the highest standards of safety.”