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Public spending watchdog says Sellafield nuclear waste storage poses 'intolerable risk'

07 November 2012

An "intolerable risk" to the population is being posed by hazardous waste stored in run-down buildings at the Sellafield nuclear plant, according to a report from the National Audit Office (NAO), the UK’s watchdog on public spending. Sellafield is the UK's largest and most hazardous nuclear site, and stores enough high and intermediate level radioactive waste to fill 27 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The NAO report says older facilities at Sellafield have "deteriorated so much that their contents pose significant risks to people and the environment"
The NAO report says older facilities at Sellafield have "deteriorated so much that their contents pose significant risks to people and the environment"

For more than 50 years operators have failed to plan how to dispose of the radioactive waste and some of the older facilities have "deteriorated so much that their contents pose significant risks to people and the environment", the report said.

The owners of the Cumbrian nuclear facility do not know how long it will take to build storage and treatment centres for the hazardous material or how much the final bill is likely to be, according to the report.

Progress in 12 of the 14 major buildings and equipment projects considered "critical" for reducing risk, which range in cost from £21 million to £1.3 billion, failed to achieve what they were supposed to and had not provided good value for money, the NAO said.

Its report found there "is still considerable uncertainty in the schedules and costs" of the projects.

A long-term plan to clean up the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority-owned site, which is managed by Sellafield Ltd, was agreed last year after an earlier one stalled because it was "unrealistic".

The highest risks are posed by the ponds and silos built during the 1950s and 1960s to store fuel for early reprocessing operations and radioactive waste, according to the report.

Margaret Hodge, who chairs the public accounts committee, said: "Projects of this length and ambition are ripe for dithering and delay.

"I am dismayed to discover the clean-up of Sellafield is no different. The authority's revised plan sees critical milestones shunted back by up to seven years. After only 10 months of operating under the new plan, performance in 12 out of 14 major projects has been dire.

"Between May 2011 and March 2012, the seven major projects in construction accumulated delays of between two and 19 months. Hazardous radioactive waste is housed in buildings which pose 'intolerable risks to people and the environment'.

"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. It is totally unacceptable to allow today's poor management to shift the burden and expense of Sellafield to future generations of taxpayers and their families."

Around 240 of Sellafield's 1,400 buildings are nuclear facilities and so far 55 buildings on the site have been decommissioned.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: "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.

"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."

A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change said: “The Government has made cleaning up and decommissioning the nuclear legacy a priority and is maintaining funding at some £3 billion a year, even at a time when it faces difficult spending decisions. This enables the NDA to continue to make progress on decommissioning, with the focus being on tackling the highest hazards at Sellafield.

“Substantial progress is being made in tackling the unique and complex challenges at Sellafield. A new plan has been developed for the site which provides the basis for improved performance going forward and removes unrealistic assumptions. Cost savings of over £425 million have been generated and a further £1 billion of previously planned investment avoided.

“Last year was the site’s best year for reprocessing operations in seven years and real progress is being seen in tackling a number of high hazard facilities.”

Operator Sellafield Ltd, said it welcomed the report's findings and was "making improvements".

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