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Paying the price of poor nuclear management

12 March 2012

Delays and neglect in remediating the UK’s legacy nuclear facilities has led to huge increases in their costs, according to a government-commissioned report by University of Sussex energy expert and director of the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex, Professor Gordon MacKerron. According to the report, the expected bill has risen by some £20 billion in the last six years.

Professor Gordon MacKerron
Professor Gordon MacKerron

Professor MacKerron says: “The history of managing and funding our nuclear legacy has, until very recently, been dire. Funds collected from consumers for decommissioning and waste management were diverted to other ends. And for decades minimal attention was paid to deteriorating nuclear facilities - and the cost of remediating them is consequently now much higher, probably by several billion pounds, than it would have been had serious work started up to two decades ago. Continuing commitment to separating plutonium from spent fuel, long after any economic justification had ceased, compounded the problem.

“The establishment of the NDA [Nuclear Decommissioning Authority] in 2005 was a substantial step forward – for the first time a single body focussed entirely on managing the nuclear legacy. Unsurprisingly this has led to the discovery that the (discounted) costs of managing our nuclear liabilities will be over £20bn more as at 2011 than expected in 2005. And there are indications that, when affordable, speeding up the work of remediation may offer good value for money. Government has learned lessons from history and the funding regimes for British Energy’s current reactors, as well as any future reactors, are much more robust."

Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey welcomed the report as “a valuable contribution to an important debate. It paints a stark picture of the UK’s nuclear history”

The report’s conclusions in brief:
Delays by governments and public bodies in tackling nuclear liabilities led to a progressive escalation of costs and deterioration in facilities, which has only begun to be addressed in recent years. The problem was compounded by the military and research origins of the nuclear industry.
Government has learned important lessons from this history: in the creation and funding of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to deal with the legacy, the Nuclear Liabilities Fund for the reactors run by British Energy and in the legal framework that has been put in place for liabilities resulting from any new nuclear build.

The military origins of the post-war UK nuclear industry led to the early civilian nuclear programme of gas-cooled reactors inherently more complex and expensive to decommission than light water reactors.  The choice of second generation advanced gas-cooled reactors, made on the basis of conflicted advice, compounded the effects and commitment to reprocessing spent fuel added further to costs.

Little or no thought was given to decommissioning facilities at end of life. The organisations which owned them had other objectives, either the pursuit of research into new nuclear technologies or the pursuit of profitability. Although the prospect of electricity privatisation in the late 1980s focused attention on the costs of the legacy, the opportunity was not taken to address it properly.

The 2002 White Paper which led to the creation of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) marked a turning point. Government is now committed to long term planning to deal with the nuclear legacy and has put in place  structures to do so that are clearly superior to those that came before.

Spending on nuclear decommissioning, which is ring-fenced within DECC’s budget has increased significantly and spending on the highest priorities is protected. But the NDA faces continuing operational and financial challenges.

Professor Gordon MacKerron's report is available to read here.

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