Clean-up slows down at Britain's obsolete reactors
The debate over new plants is obscuring
a bigger problem: there isn't enough money being spent on decommissioning
old ones. Tim Webb reports
At an intimate House of Commons reception last
week on a balmy evening, the Minister for Energy, Malcolm Wicks, addressed
some of the UK's biggest players in the nuclear world.
He was speaking passionately about the need
to press on with the construction of a new generation of nuclear reactors.
'Let's take them on,' he exhorted his guests, referring to environmental
campaigners like Greenpeace who were trying to block the plans. The audience,
which included former energy minister Brian Wilson and the chief executive
of British Energy, Bill Coley, nodded approvingly.
But while politicians and campaigners slug
it out over new reactors that won't be built for at least 10 years, the
issue of how to clean up Britain's old plants now is far more pressing
for the industry - and the taxpayer. Astonishingly, almost half the entire
budget - over £1.5bn this year - of Wicks's Department for Business,
Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Berr) is spent on decommissioning the
UK's old reactors and nuclear facilities.
Nuclear consultant Ian Jackson estimates,
in his new book Nukenomics: The Commercialisation of Britain's Nuclear
Industry, that the total being spent on decommissioning is equivalent to
an extra 1p in the pound on income tax.
The government set up the Nuclear Decommissioning
Authority (NDA) to oversee and fund this massive 100-year clean-up programme
covering the UK's 20 state-owned nuclear sites. Its latest estimate for
the total bill is £73bn, but this figure is expected to rise.
In early July, the NDA will announce the winner
of the biggest contract - to begin cleaning up Sellafield - which could
eventually be worth up to £20bn. But the NDA has had to suspend its
plans to issue contracts for the rest of its sites after an initial lack
of interest in cleaning up some of its old Magnox reactors. Because of
higher costs, it has also cut back decommissioning work on these reactors
in order to concentrate resources at Sellafield.
Unions estimate that 1.000 workers have lost
their jobs as a result. But some of those who still have jobs have little
to do. Mike Graham, national secretary of the Prospect union, says: 'There
are a number of people who are going into work twiddling their thumbs because
there is no money available for decommissioning work to be carried out,
and no money to pay people off.'
Earlier this year, a committee of MPs also
warned that the way the NDA was funded was 'unsustainable'. There is growing
concern that unless the clean-up programme gets back on track - and the
NDA gets enough money to fund it - then it will be harder to convince the
public to accept new reactors and the waste they will produce. Peter Luff
MP, chairman of the Parliamentary select committee on Berr, says: 'If
people do not have confidence that existing waste is being dealt with properly
then it will shake public confidence in new-build.'
The scale of the NDA's task is daunting. It
has inherited the UK's most decrepit stations: the 11 Magnox plants, only
two of which are still operating, and every one of which is slightly different
from the others. Sellafield, for which NDA is also responsible, is full
of swimming-pool-sized 'ponds' where encased waste has lain for decades.
Just over half the NDA's £2.8bn budget
this year comes from the government. The rest is supposed to come from
income earned by its two operating Magnox plants - soon to close - and
its Thorp reprocessing plant. But Thorp has spent most of the past three
years closed after a huge radioactive leak. In February the NDA had to
go cap in hand to the government for a £400m funding top-up, partly
because its commercial income was not as high as expected.
Companies involved in the decommissioning
market - which include Amec and Serco from Britain and Bechtel, Fluor and
Washington Group from the US - also complain about the uncertainty over
whether the NDA will have enough money to fund its programme. The authority
only knows how much it will get from the government two or three years
in advance. In its recent business plan for the next three years, the NDA
only spells out how it will spend its money in the first year.
Joe McHugh, head of radioactive waste at the
Environment Agency, says: 'These programmes are much longer-term than
this two- or three-year time frame. They are relying on innovation and
competition to get costs down. But companies won't come into the market
without more certainty that the funding will be there in the long term.'
There is also concern that the total clean-up
bill for the taxpayer will rise as the delays lengthen. McHugh adds: 'The
"hotel costs" to maintain mothballed reactors, like Magnox, where decommissioning
has not yet started, are substantial. The experience in the US is that
it's better to spend more money up front.'
The NDA insists that the temporary suspension
of some clean-up work won't delay completion of the programme. But it acknowledges
that changes need to be made in how it is funded. The organisation says:
'Given the knowledge and experience gained from the first three years
of NDA's operation, and the desire to build stakeholder and supply chain
confidence, the NDA and government believe it is timely to review the NDA
funding model to ensure that it is facilitating the NDA's efficient operations.'
The NDA's difficult job has not been
helped, it has been said, by the high level of turnover in its senior management
- a claim that the authority disputes. It took more than six months to
find a new chairman last year, while five of its 18 directors have left
this year. The Observer also revealed this month that its chief executive,
Ian Roxburgh, will step down at the end of the year.
Some executives have also queried whether
a new and relatively small public-sector body can hold its own against
wily private-sector companies. The National Audit Office has expressed
concern that taxpayers will foot the bill for any cost overruns in the
clean-up work because companies can apply to the NDA for reimbursement.
But unions and companies are cautiously optimistic about how the Sellafield
competition is being run. McHugh of the Environment Agency, which earlier
this year warned that the NDA risked losing stakeholders' confidence, adds:
'The NDA, on the whole, is doing a good job in difficult circumstances.
It is addressing problems which are long overdue.'
The government seems obsessed with finding
a private-sector solution to every problem. But the state created the billions
of pounds of these decommissioning liabilities. As the NDA's commercial
income falls, the government will have to increase its financial involvement
if any meaningful inroads are to be made into the £73bn programme.
As Professor Ian Fells, professor of energy
conversion at Newcastle University, says: 'Ultimately, the government
will have to provide more funding for the NDA and pay for the decommissioning
Nuclear costs 'to rise by billions'
The cost of cleaning up Britain's ageing nuclear
power sites is likely to rise by "billions of pounds", it has been reported.
In January an official report put the cost
at £73 billion, a figure up £12 billion on the previous estimate
made in 2003.
But a senior official at the Nuclear Decommissioning
Authority said the cost would continue to escalate.
Director Jim Morse said there is a "high probability"
the cost will go up in the short term.
Since the 1950s, when Britain led the way
in nuclear research, radioactive waste - which remains deadly for thousands
of years - has been steadily piling up, with no clear answer on how it
is dealt with.
There is now a stockpile of 1.345 cubic metres
of high-level waste and 350.000 cubic metres of intermediate level waste
- both highly toxic to humans - a consequence of Britain's nuclear legacy
and the decommissioning of old plants.
This mountain of nuclear waste, big enough
to fill the Royal Albert Hall three and a half times over, is held at Sellafield
in Cumbria, and guarded round the clock.
A spokesman for the Department for Business,
Enterprise and Regulatory Reform said the next generation of nuclear power
stations would produce less waste than the older ones, and that the power
generators would be obliged to pay for the costs.
A total of 19 sites across the country are
due to be dismantled over the next century.
The decommissioning sites include Magnox power
stations at Berkeley in Gloucestershire, Bradwell in Essex, Chapelcross
in Dumfries, Dungeness A in Kent, Hinkley Point A in Somerset, Hunterston
A in Ayrshire, Oldbury in Gloucestershire, Sizewell A in Suffolk, Trawsfynydd
in Gwynedd, Wylfa on Anglesey and Calder Hall in Cumbria, as well as fuel
facilities at Sellafield, Cumbria and Capenhurst in Cheshire.