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Double blow dents confidence in £40bn nuclear programme

Contractors are facing uncertainty about the Government’s £40 billion nuclear programme after blows to both the decommissioning and new build programmes this week.

The body in charge of decommissioning toxic sites revealed it may have to defer some work as part of a Government cost-cutting drive, while the safety regulator admitted there was still a significant number of flaws to be ironed out in the newbuild reactor designs before work could progress.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority confirmed its board was considering a range of potential cuts to its budget. It could include scrapping some work, although other projects could be brought forward if it was decided they offered better value for money.

The NDA, which has an annual budget of almost £1 billion to clean up contaminated sites, said: “The range of scenarios to be considered includes: bringing forward some work, subject to affordability, where there are strong value-formoney business cases; the deferral of some non-essential work to later years; the deletion of scope where alternative plans can be formed; increasing income generation from our remaining assets; [and] opportunities for further efficiency savings.”

The review is part of a Government-wide process to cut costs and drive efficiencies in all public sector agencies. The NDA said it planned to make a decision on where costs would be cut by February.

One insider said: “There is still a lot of uncertainty there as to what this could mean. We think there will be cuts in areas where the work is non-essential, but the thing is that there is a great deal of work that is essential.

“And in the current climate, when you are trying to make the case for new nuclear, the last thing

you want to be doing is cutting clean-up costs for sites like Sellafield, which are, in effect, toxic dumps at the moment.”

The news came as the Health and Safety Executive raised a string of concerns over the two proposed new build reactor designs.

The HSE – which is reviewing designs put forward by an EDF/ Areva joint venture and Westinghouse – said it had identified a “significant” number of problems. Detailed assessment is due to conclude in June 2011.

While there are fears the design problems could set back the programme, the Civil Engineering Contractors Association said it was important to get the designs right pre-construction in order to avoid the kind of delays currently being experienced by reactor schemes in Finland and France.

Head of industry affairs Alasdair Reisner encouraged EDF, Areva and Westinghouse to “call upon the skills and knowledge of [our] members” to help overcome any buildability issues relating to the civil engineering aspects of the reactors.