The UK’s nuclear security and safety watchdog faces what shocked industry insiders are calling “unbelievable” conflicts of interest, The Independent reported on 27 May. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/exclusive-nuclear-regulator-the-onr-accused-of-indefensible-conflict-of-interest-9437012.html)The newspaper reported that The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) is receiving technical advice from several of the very companies that it is supposed to be monitoring, including the US engineering conglomerate Jacobs and the Ftse 100 stalwart Amec. This has led to accusations that the advice cannot be viewed as independent. ONR inspects nuclear sites across the country, including the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in Berkshire and Hinkley Point civil energy reactors in Somerset. It recently issued formal cautions to two workers on Cumbria’s Sellafield, one of the world’s most complicated decommissioning sites, for an incident that could have exposed themselves or their colleagues to heightened levels of radiation.
But there are fears that ONR’s efforts to oversee these hazardous sites could be compromised by contracts it has dished out for technical support in its assessment work. In early April ONR handed Jacobs a five-year deal to help the watchdog in areas like assessing external hazards and decontamination in relation to its work on existing nuclear sites and future reactor designs. Amec gives advice on complicated issues such as reactor chemistry and radiation protection, while the consultancy Arup and building firm Sir Robert McAlpine help on civil engineering issues. All have extensive nuclear interests in the UK.
Jacobs is part of the consortium that owns AWE, which builds and maintains the UK’s nuclear defence deterrent, Trident. Amec is in the consortium looking after the clean-up of Sellafield. Both of these huge firms are supporting Horizon Nuclear Power with engineering expertise on proposed plants at Wylfa on the Isle of Anglesey and Oldbury in south Gloucestershire. Arup worked for the operator RWE Npower on assessing potential sites for new nuclear power stations in Cumbria. Sir Robert McAlpine built 13 of Britain’s nuclear plants, such as Sizewell B in Suffolk.
I am accurately quoted in the article as saying: “It’s so obvious that this is a conflict of interest, it’s such a straightforward conflict of interest. This is indefensible.”
I wrote to the ONR in April asking them to explain how companies can both support the nuclear industry commercially and suort the industry’s regulator as contracted consultant. Here is what they told me in reply. I am unconvinced.
Thank you for your query regarding potential conflicts of interest with a contactor within ONR's Technical Support Framework.
I would like to reassure that ONR is fully aware of the need to ensure the independence and integrity of its regulatory activities and decisions. ONR relies on Technical Support Contractors (TSCs) to undertake assessments and we recognise that the industry itself is also utilising the TSC pool to support its own activities. However, ONR would not tolerate a situation in which a person carrying out assessment for ONR is also working on a related matter for a current or prospective licensee.
My staff take steps to ensure that regulatory independence is not compromised when using contractors within our Technical Support Framework (TSF) and the industry itself is also acutely aware of the need to avoid potential conflict of interest where TSC's are used. As a pre-condition for ONR's selection of a TSC, we seek assurance that the TSC has robust internal management controls which prevent conflicts of interest from occurring and the TSC's responsibilities with regard to potential conflicts of interest are included in the contract that allow it to become part of the TSF.
With regard to your comment on "objective regulation", a TSC will be asked to carry out specific technical assessments for ONR, but the scope and objectives of the work are specified by ONR, and TSC outputs and conclusions are considered by suitably qualified and experienced ONR Inspectors. I am satisfied that where TSC's are used, my inspectors maintain oversight and control of the work and are readily able to take intelligent ownership of the reports produced and to interpret the associated conclusions. Please be assured that ONR inspectors will continue to make the regulatory decisions and issue the permissions necessary for us to effectively regulate the duty holders and ensure the continued safety and security performance of the industry. This will never be the purview of the TSC.
Should a potential conflict of interest emerge, we have a clear protocol that provides a robust process and defines clear criteria against which the emerging conflict can be judged. It ensures that we can demonstrate to others that our suppliers are sufficiently impartial to provide support to civil nuclear regulation. However, ONR reserves the right to terminate the Contract immediately by notice in writing and/or to take such other steps it deems necessary where, in the reasonable opinion of ONR, there is or may be an actual conflict, or a potential conflict.
ONR will continue to be committed to its policy of openness and transparency as part of its regulation of the UK nuclear industry, this includes the publication of Project Assessment Reports (PARs) written in support of our regulatory decision making, these PAR's will reference all relevant documentation in support of the decision, including that produced by TSC's. We are also very open on which organisations form our TSF and where we are utilising them.
I believe that ONR has robust arrangements in place to protect against conflicts of interest arising within the TSF and I trust that the evidence I have provided allays your concerns in this area.
Deputy Chief Inspector & Director
ONR Civil Nuclear Reactor Programme
24 April 2014