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“Sorry saga” of disused nuclear sites will cost generations of UK taxpayer

27 November 2020

Massive failed contracts, “weak” Government oversight and “perpetual” lack of knowledge of state of nuclear sites will cost “generations” of UK taxpayers dear.

Decommissioning of retired civil nuclear sites was an afterthought when the UK’s pioneering nuclear industry was established. Decades of poor records of the state and location of hazardous materials and “weak” Government oversight has left the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) with the legacy of a “perpetual” lack of knowledge about the condition of the UK’s nuclear sites it is responsible for making safe.

This ongoing lack of knowledge was a significant factor in the failure of the Magnox procurement and original contract, which seriously damaged the NDA’s reputation and has now cost the taxpayer in excess of £140 million, and it continues to be a major barrier to making progress.

The NDA acknowledges that it still does not have full understanding of the condition of the 17 sites across its estate, including the 10 former Magnox power stations. According to its most recent estimates it will cost current and future generations of UK taxpayers £132 billion to decommission the UK’s civil nuclear sites, and the work will not be completed for another 120 years - with significant impacts on the lives of those who live near the sites.

The NDA’s estimate of the cost just to get the sites to the ‘care and maintenance’ stage of the decommissioning process has increased by between £1.3 billion and £3.1 billion in just three years since 2017, to between £6.9 billion and £8.7 billion. The PAC says past experience with the NDA suggests even these estimates will soon be out of date and costs may increase further.

The Committee says the NDA is not doing enough to exploit the valuable technical skills and new technologies in the UK nuclear industry, either for the benefit of local communities or the UK economy as a whole. The UK was the first country to establish a civil nuclear power generation industry and is still a world leader in nuclear decommissioning technology. The NDA also holds substantial assets in terms of land and employment opportunities that could be used to serve local communities.

Chair's comments

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:

“The UK went from leading the world in establishing nuclear power to this sorry saga of a perpetual lack of knowledge about the current state of the UK’s nuclear sites. With a project of this length and cost we need to see clearer discipline in project management.”

Deputy Chair's comments

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, deputy Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:

“Although progress has been made since our last report, incredibly, the NDA still doesn’t know even where we’re currently at, in terms of state and safety of the UK’s disused nuclear sites.  Without that, and after the serious knock to the NDA’s reputation in the Magnox contracting disaster, it is hard to have confidence in future plans or estimates.

“The UK nuclear industry has valuable technical skills and is still a world leader in nuclear decommissioning technology. The NDA, with stronger, better oversight from Government, must make a clear break with the incompetence and failures of the past and step up to maximise these assets, and the astronomical sums of taxpayers’ money it has absorbed, for the benefit of local communities and the post-Covid recovery of the UK economy as a whole.

“Generations of taxpayers and local residents will continue to be impacted just by cleaning up these sites - the process must be made to work for them.  The NDA have a duty to those taxpayers to ensure that they provide value for money for everything they do. 

“In tandem with this, the NDA should be helping to export these capabilities the world over - it should be a force for and part of our economic recovery over the coming decade, instead of the damaging drain on resources, more precious than ever now, it has been allowed to become.”

Further information

Image: PA