Atomic waste clean-up plan comes under fire

Government agencies in feud over safety standards

Toxic waste body 'short on money and expertise'

Terry Macalister, The Guardian, February 25 2008

Two government agencies at the heart of the nuclear industry are at war over safety concerns at some of the country's most sensitive sites.

The Environment Agency believes insufficient funds have been made available by ministers for the clean-up of some sites, and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is accused of making things worse by deciding to concentrate on especially toxic waste at sites such as Sellafield in Cumbria .

This prioritisation will delay clean-up elsewhere, "prolonging and potentially increasing risk to the environment that they pose and the costs necessary for their maintenance", the Environment Agency argues in a strongly worded response to the NDA's draft business plan covering the years 2008-11.

A follow-up letter from the agency's chief executive, Barbara Young, to her counterpart at the NDA, Ian Roxburgh, talks about stakeholder confidence being endangered by the decommissioning organisation's go-it-alone approach. She accuses the NDA of spurning offers of advice and claims that it has a shortage of environmental skills.

"The NDA is in a unique position ... to facilitate national solutions to problems that have hampered the industry for decades, and to establish far greater transparency and stakeholder confidence in the way forward for the civil nuclear industry than ever before. However, this opportunity will be lost if [the] NDA loses stakeholders' confidence through following an approach to decision-making and stakeholder engagement such as the one you seem to have taken in developing the draft business plan."

Young expresses "disappointment" at the NDA's actions and concern that offers of advice are not being taken up: "For example, you don't have much environmental resource with the NDA and we have offered our expertise and to help train your staff."

The NDA admitted last night that there had been "unhappiness" at the Environment Agency about its approach but insisted the two sides had patched up their differences. "We have taken the Environment Agency's concerns into consideration and revised our business plan to account for this. The redrafted plan will be submitted shortly to government and is expected to be published towards the end of March," an NDA spokesman said.

Green groups such as Greenpeace expressed alarm that the Environment Agency was voicing the kinds of concerns about insufficient funding that they had highlighted before. "I think the majority of people will be worried to know the NDA has not got enough money to handle the tasks that it was set up to deal with," said Jean McSorley, nuclear campaigner at Greenpeace. "It has been the failure of commercial operations such as reprocessing at Sellafield to deliver the financial returns that were expected that has partly left it in this position."

The NDA announced in November that it had been allocated an £8.5bn budget by the Treasury to cover the next three years, an increase of £671m, at a time when total clean-up costs have soared to £73bn - an increase of 16% in one year by the NDA's reckoning. Nick Baldwin, the organisation's interim chairman, denied that it was a "gloom and doom" situation, and said the organisation was dealing safely and efficiently with the job in hand.

But his decision to suspend a clean-up licensing process at the Magnox South plants and concentrate on high-level waste at Sellafield and Dounreay brought trenchant criticism from the trade unions, who accused the NDA of leaving its own business plan "in tatters".

Green cash raid

The government has switched money meant to support low carbon and renewable technologies to clean up the waste from Britain 's nuclear power stations.

Spending figures show that at least one tranche of money - worth £15m - that was meant to be used on "sustainable energy capital grants" has been switched to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, an agency established to oversee the clean-up of atomic waste.

Ministers have also plundered the defence budget as well as cash that should have been used for "regional selective assistance" to bolster an NDA struggling to cope with £72bn decommissioning costs.

The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform said some money had been switched in the spring supplementary estimates for 2007-08 but insisted this was just to balance the books.


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Page Updated 01-Mar-2008