Sellafield decommissioning plans still need work

8th November 2012


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The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority's plan to clean up Sellafield by 2120 is more realistic than the previous schedule, but projects are still underperforming says National Audit Office (NAO)

In an assessment of how decommissioning efforts are progressing at the UK’s largest nuclear site, the NAO reveals that 12 of the 14 major projects running between May 2011 and March 2012 did not deliver as planned.

According to the NAO, six of seven construction projects were delayed by between two and 19 months, and five of the completed projects achieved less than 90% of their overall goals,.

The public auditing body acknowledges that some of the difficulties faced by the National Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and the company that operates Sellafield are the result of decades of poor planning and neglect at the site, which first opened in the 1940s.

The NAO confirms that the new “lifetime plan” to decommission the site that was adopted in May 2011 is superior to the previous 2007 plan, which the NDA deemed undeliverable. It warns, however, that “poor project design and delivery by Sellafield Limited and weaknesses in the authority’s oversight” were also to blame for delays and increasing costs.

It highlights in particular that Sellafield Limited has failed to allow for uncertainties, with the costs of building one plant to deal with waste from silos increasing 92% because the company’s estimates were prepared before it had understood the full costs of the design.

According to the NAO, despite taking over responsibility for the site in 2005, it wasn’t until mid-2011 that the NDA began collecting robust enough information from Sellafield Limited on major projects to enable early intervention if there were problems. In further moves to address underperformance by the company, the NDA set up a project and programme review group in September 2011 and has seconded more of its staff to the firm.

The NAO concludes that the NDA is making progress, particularly with the adoption of the lifetime plan, but warns that uncertainties remain in project timetables and costs. It urges the authority to take steps to clarify how Sellafield Limited estimates costs and schedules, benchmarking its working externally whenever possible.

"It is good that the authority now has a more robust lifetime plan in place, but it cannot say with certainty how long it will take to deal with hazardous radioactive waste at Sellafield or how much it will cost,” said Amyas Morse, head of the NAO.

"Securing future value for money will depend on the authority’s ability to act as an intelligent client, to benchmark proposed levels of performance and to provide better contractual incentives for making faster progress towards risk and hazard reduction."

Responding to the report, a DECC spokesperson said: “Substantial progress is being made in tackling the unique and complex challenges at Sellafield. Last year was the site’s best year for reprocessing operations in seven years and real progress is being seen in tackling a number of high-hazard facilities.”

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