The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has been accused of failing to properly review significant cost and programme overruns at Sellafield, as MPs condemned the oversight of its sites as “not fit for purpose”.
A report by the public accounts committee on risk reduction at Sellafield also found that the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy had failed in its role of holding the NDA to account.
The PAC criticised BEIS for failing to make a decision on whether to place Sellafield’s plutonium stock in long-term storage or reuse it as fuel in new nuclear power stations.
Its report noted that the canisters holding the plutonium stock were decaying faster than expected, and that the “NDA’s project to repackage these canisters is at least two years late and expected to cost over £1.5bn – £1bn more than it first expected”.
Sellafield’s plutonium stock is the largest in the world and accounts for 40 per cent of global stockpiles.
The committee’s deputy chair Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said: “The government’s oversight of the NDA’s performance could and should be much better, particularly on projects at Sellafield that cost a considerable amount of public money.
“In short, BEIS needs to seriously get a grip on its oversight of nuclear decommissioning in this country.”
Responding to the committee’s report, a BEIS spokesperson said: “Decommissioning is an important part of the nuclear cycle and, as the PAC recognises, considerable progress has been made at Sellafield.
“This includes strengthening the governance structure and greater use of cutting-edge technologies to ensure the highest possible safety standards are maintained, while reducing the costs of decommissioning by 20 per cent by 2030.”
The NDA receives its funding from BEIS, which has a duty to hold it to account.
However, the PAC said the department “does not currently have sufficient expertise and capacity […] to oversee major projects”.
BEIS is supported in this oversight role by UK Government Investments, the government company that manages a portfolio of businesses including majority-owned banks, Channel 4 and Ordnance Survey.
However, the PAC report questioned UKGI’s “skillset” and said the body represented an “unnecessary extra layer”.
Following the PAC’s last review of the NDA’s major projects in 2015, the decommissioning body agreed it needed to set out “clearer performance information that would enable more effective external scrutiny”, the committee noted.
However, today’s report concluded that “the NDA has not completed this work”.
On the progress the NDA had made across its operations more broadly, the PAC said it was “difficult to assess overall progress objectively”.
The committee acknowledged that the decommissioning body had made progress on retrieving waste from Sellafield’s most hazardous legacy facilities, and that it now expected to complete retrieval work on one of its silos six years earlier than planned.
However, it added: “The NDA cannot convincingly explain how these improvements are possible, when the work on all four legacy ponds and silos has been behind schedule in at least three of the last six years.”
The NDA estimates it will cost £91bn and take around 100 years to decommission and clean up the Sellafield site.