Scrutiny to be given to “hidden costs” of nuclear power

The Guardian reports, 1st December 2013: “The bill for cleaning up the huge Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria will rise even higher than its current estimated level of £70bn as operators struggle to assess the full scale of the task, according to sources close to the project.

The warning comes just days before private sector managers face a grilling from the public accounts committee, which is investigating activities at the facility.

It was hoped that the huge bill — eight times the cost of staging the London Olympics — would be capped at £70bn, but well-placed sources have told the Guardian that the operators are convinced they are still “not at the top” of the cost curve.

A view of the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site

The huge Sellafield plant in Cumbria is regarded as the most dangerous industrial site in western Europe, not least because it houses 120 tonnes of plutonium, the largest civilian stockpile in the world.
Photograph: David Moir/Reuters

The cost of decommissioning the Calder Hall reactor plus a magnox fuel reprocessing plant at Sellafield has been rising steeply, but the biggest task comes from “ponds” and “silos” filled with old equipment and deteriorating, highly toxic waste.

Nuclear Management Partners (NMP), the private sector consortium that manages the site, declined to comment, but other sources said those engaged in the clean-up were still some way from knowing exactly what was in the storage facilities. “Record-keeping in the past was clearly not what it should have been,” said one.

The soaring cost of decommissioning, along with the apparent inefficiency of NMP — and the £230m of dividends it has received — will come under the spotlight on 4th December at a meeting of the public accounts committee. The committee has in the past been highly critical of NMP, not least for falling behind on 12 out of 14 key tasks being undertaken in Cumbria.

The senior nuclear executives will also be asked to comment on how £6m of bonuses came to be shared out among NMP bosses over three years and why the consortium paid back £100,000 in expenses that had been wrongly claimed. The political temperature has been raised by the NDA agreeing to give a further five-year contract to NMP despite its performance being fiercely criticised by accountants in a recent report, which was not initially provided to the committee.

While the clean-up goes on there has been much speculation about how to deal with the plutonium, which in theory could be used to create dozens of atomic bombs if it fell into the wrong hands. Just storing this material is said to cost £80m a year and there are a variety of potential plans for reducing the stockpile, possibly by burning it or turning it into more fuel for reactors.

Talk of building a new mixed-oxide (Mox) fuel reprocessing plant has been undermined by a report out this summer that concluded a previous Mox facility, which closed two years ago, had left taxpayers with a £2.2bn bill rather than the healthy profit that had been promised when it was first constructed.

Source: The Guardian, 1st December 2013. For the full text, see http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/dec/01/sellafield-nuclear-clean-up-cost-rises

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