The findings of the spending watchdog’s latest report on the status of Sellafield’s clean-up projects and costs makes yet more dreary reading for the UK taxpayer – the costs described as ‘a misuse of public funds’ by a spokesman for the report’s authors the Government’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
Published today (31.10.18), the PAC report pulls few punches in its criticism of the way the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is managing many of the major projects needed to clean up Sellafield. The site currently receives some £2Bn of public money every year and, over the next 100+ years of decommissioning is expected to cost a total of £91Bn. In a slight but revealing departure from the pattern of previous reports, PAC raises the spectre of the UK’s plutonium stockpile (40% of the world’s global stock) and the latest thinking by Government on its long-term plutonium management options. [An NDA FoI response to CORE (29.10.18) suggests an update on its plutonium plans is currently being finalised by the NDA and could be published in the next month or so]
The NDA is castigated by PAC for failing to identify the lessons from earlier project cancellations and past mistakes, and for not having a firm grip of the work that takes place on the site. For its part, the Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is also criticised for not holding the NDA to account effectively, having insufficient expertise and lacking the capability to oversee major projects. In a case of too many cooks the spoil the broth, criticism is also levelled at the delegation by BEIS of its oversight of the NDA to UK Government Investment (UKGI) – a body largely unknown to the British public and considered by PAC to be an unnecessary extra layer of oversight and lack the right skillset to enable it to perform the delegated task effectively.
Though some of the project overruns and cost escalations identified in the report are extensions of projects raised in previous PAC reports and in similar assessments by the National Audit Office (NAO), they make deservedly tough reading for the NDA and its subsidiary Sellafield Ltd. To put some figurative flesh on Sellafield’s skeleton, the PAC report’s findings reveal the following:
- Major projects are expected to cost over £900 million more than originally budgeted and be subjected to delays of over 13 years.
- The NDA has cancelled three projects since 2012 after spending £586 million of taxpayers’ money on them.
- Two of the above projects – the silo direct encapsulation project and the box transfer facility were cancelled after the NDA projected a combined cost increase of £2.1 billion and a combined delay of nine years.
- The NDA’s programme to deal with the plutonium stockpile in the near term is late and its costs are increasing
- The concerning discovery last year (NAO report 20.6.18) that some plutonium canisters have been decaying faster than expected is made worse by the fact that the NDA’s project to repackage these canisters is at least two years late and expected to cost over £1.5 billion, £1 billion more than it first expected.
- The series of contingency arrangements to manage these decaying canisters are short-term fixes for a long-term problem and BEIS has yet to set out clearly what its strategy is and the associated costs to the taxpayer.
- BEIS has still not decided between the two plutonium management options available – its long-term storage prior to final disposal as waste in a geological disposal facility (GDF) that has yet to be located or constructed, or its reuse as fuel in new nuclear power stations – but has told the PAC Committee that ‘it is not comfortable with any of the potential options for managing plutonium other than disposing it in the GDF’