There can’t be many nuclear bodies that choose to bury – just three days before Christmas – what is touted as a good news story by the industry. But this is exactly what Sellafield Ltd has contrived to do in its 22nd December announcement that the long overdue and eye-wateringly expensive Evaporator D has come on line at Sellafield. Yet by confirming that the new Evaporator actually came on line at 0800 on the 8th December, the start-up has been kept under wraps for a fortnight until a time when public attention was focused on seasonal festivities rather than on nuclear news. Keeping such a story under the public radar for so long is, to say the least, wholly out of character for the industry – though the Evaporator’s history is hardly something to shout about. It is not however just about the burial of ‘good’ news itself that many will find disturbing, but rather the manner in which the burial rites have been manipulated and massaged to dupe the wider world.
The ghost of Christmas past
Designed to process the dangerous high level waste liquids produced by the site’s reprocessing operations so that they can be vitrified and canned for eventual disposal, Evaporator D is located in the site’s Highly Active Liquid Evaporation and Storage (HALES) facility. Its tortured construction track record since its inception over a decade ago by British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) is well documented and gives the lie to its original costings and timescale. As reported in the industry’s Nuclear Fuel journal in 2009 ‘Sellafield operators estimated (in 2007) the cost of the proposed Evaporator D at GBP90 million and said they expected it to be operational around 2010/2011’.
The £740M cost of Evaporator D in 2015 was increased to £750M by the NDA as an ‘estimated’ cost at March 2017 in its Annual Report & Accounts 2016/17. The final cost is likely to be higher.
Since those heady days for the industry, the life of the facility has lurched from one crisis to another, with Sellafield, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and it’s sacked Nuclear Management Partners (NMP) contractor all being taken to task by the Government’s National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee for inept mismanagement of the Project. Now in operation over six years late, the Evaporator’s £750M cost today represents an eight-fold increase on its original costing.
In sweeping the delays and cost-hikes under the convenient Christmas carpet, Sellafield Ltd’s ‘News Story’ of 22nd December has presented a view of the Evaporator that long-term observers of the project will simply not recognise – particularly the manipulation of Evaporator D’s ‘mission’ at Sellafield which it now highlights as supporting the clean-out of the sites reprocessing plants and other decommissioning programmes.
At best this can be described as Evaporator D’s air-brushed default mission enforced by years of construction chaos. At worst it is a deliberately dishonest description that has pressed the delete button on all past references to its originally stated mission which, from its earliest days, was officially billed as being urgently needed to support ongoing reprocessing operations at Sellafield, particularly those of the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP).
The driver behind the urgency was the widely acknowledged risk that, without Evaporator D – and left entirely at the mercy of the increasingly unreliable and semi-crippled Evaporators A, B & C – the future of reprocessing at Sellafield would be seriously if not fatally threatened. The use of the new Evaporator for clean-out and decommissioning work, as now claimed, never got a mention, as evident in the description by a Sellafield Trades Union Convener in 2008 ‘Evaporator D is vital for reprocessing otherwise we won’t be able to do it long term, not just for any future orders for Thorp but also to complete the contracts we’ve got’. This and a host of similar views had always made it crystal clear that the Evaporator’s mission was directly tied to a fulsome support of ongoing reprocessing operations, whilst paying little more than lip-service to subsequent clean up work.
The need for the sleight of hand that has seen Evaporator D’s original mission superseded today by one almost wholly dedicated to clean-up and decommissioning began during the offsite fabrication of the 11 major modules of the Evaporator by Interserve at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire between 2011 and 2013. For it was during this period of poor contract management and supply chain performance, quality assurance and seismic qualification issues that Evaporator D’s design was modified to process not only the liquors from reprocessing but also to accommodate the larger debris expected to be encountered during subsequent plant and site clean-up and decommissioning work.
Such delay-inducing re-workings and modifications appear to have triggered a tacit acknowledgement at that time by Sellafield and the NDA that continuing delays to the project could result in Evaporator D coming on line too late to play any role whatsoever in THORP’s reprocessing operations. This possibility, raised at a meeting of the Sellafield Local Liaison Committee in May 2012, drew the response from the NDA that modifications to the Evaporator’s design ‘was to bring in the capability of processing solid material for POCO (Post Operative Clean Out) of the HAST (High Active Storage Tanks) tank fleet’, a modification ‘that in its own right would be sufficient to drive NDA to continue with the Evaporator D programme’. In essence, the NDA was not only confirming the importance of the radical modification needed to cater for clean-up wastes but also that it was content to let the cost-spiralling Evaporator go ahead even if it had missed the THORP boat.
From this point onwards the clean-up role of the Evaporator has been increasingly emphasised by Sellafield and the NDA at the expense of supporting reprocessing operations which has been relegated ever since to playing a poor second fiddle – as evident in the 22nd December news story.
Given that THORP is scheduled to complete the shearing of its last contracted fuel in November next year, the over six year delay in bringing the Evaporator on line means that the THORP plant for which Evaporator D was largely designed will get no more than 11 months use of the new facility at best. Whilst the site’s magnox reprocessing plant B205 (due for closure around 2020) will get further use, many will consider that such diminished support to the very operations for which it was originally designed represents an outrageously poor return on a £750M investment of taxpayer money.
Hopes for the New Year.
The extent of the benefits of Evaporator D to reprocessing may be more widely understood in a year’s time – a period of active commissioning during which the Evaporator is described by Sellafield Ltd as going through the process of proving its capability to the Regulators. For its part, in a 5th December response to a Freedom of Information request from CORE, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has confirmed that the highly active liquors will be introduced to the new Evaporator over a period of a few months at increasingly challenging levels until it is processing full strength liquors. A regulatory ‘hold point’ is scheduled to be imposed by ONR on Evaporator D’s operation in late 2018 by which time a projected 9-12 evaporation batches will have been processed and Sellafield Ltd in a position to demonstrate to ONR that ‘all systems operate as claimed and Evaporator D has been fully integrated into the HALES facility and Safety Case’.
If ONR is satisfied, the hold point will be released, at which point Evaporator D is deemed to be fully operational. If, however, the new Evaporator has not been ‘demonstrated’ fully to ONR’s satisfaction by this time, Sellafield Ltd will have to justify an extension to the period of active commissioning and develop an action plan around how it will demonstrate these aspects. During any such extension to active commissioning, Evaporator D will remain under enhanced ONR scrutiny.
There are few positives to be taken from the Evaporator D saga that rivals the similar squandering of public money on the ill-fated and now defunct Sellafield MOX plant and even – when its financial accounts are eventually exposed publicly for the first time – the THORP plant itself. The one positive that will bring at least some cheer to the UK taxpayer is that, then costed at £600M, plans for an Evaporator E were abandoned by Sellafield in 2012.