Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Plutonium problems dominate inadequate UK radioactive waste strategy

NDA radioactive waste management strategy

Response to public consultation

by Dr David Lowry

member, Nuclear Waste Advisory Associates (UK)

Senior international research fellow

Institute for Resource and Security Studies


Massachusetts  02139 


31 October 2018


On the last morning of the period for this consultation, 12 hours before the end of the consultation, the respected and influential House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published a swingeing critique of radioactive waste management at NDA-owned Sellafield, nuclear waste and fissile materials storage plant  where the vast bulk of the UK’s radioactive waste burden is located. (|

The day before the consultation was planned to close, Sellafield Ltd, who work very closely with the NDA chose to release another very relevant report, Sellafield medium to    long term research needs , (

The very late release of these two reports complicates the ability of  interested parties to  respond to the consultation. However, as a result of these two publications, I have redrafted my reply to take into account the specific concerns the MPs raise over plutonium management.


The paragraph below comprises the PAC report’s very critical conclusions on the current status of  plutonium management at Sellafield.

The NDA’s programme to deal with the plutonium stockpile in the near term is late and its costs are increasing. (emphasis added|)

 The Department [BEIS] is no closer to understanding what to do with plutonium in the long term. Sellafield is home to 40% of the world’s global stock of plutonium. The Department is responsible for setting the government’s policy for dealing with plutonium in the long term. In 2014, we reported that the Department did not have a strategy in place for the plutonium stored at Sellafield. The Department has still not decided between the two options available to it: readying the plutonium stockpile for long-term storage in a geological disposal facility (that has yet to be constructed); or reusing it as fuel in new nuclear power stations. In the meantime, the NDA is responsible for ensuring that the plutonium currently at Sellafield is stored safely and securely. It has a programme in place to do so, which consists of projects to repackage plutonium canisters for long-term storage until the Department decides what to do with them. However, the NDA has recently discovered that some of the plutonium canisters have been decaying faster than expected. This concerning development is made worse by the fact that the NDA’s project to repackage these canisters is at least two years late and expected to cost over £1.5 billion, £1 billion more than it first expected. The NDA told us that it has put in place a series of contingency arrangements to manage these decaying canisters.

But these are short-term fixes for a long-term problem and the Department has yet to set out clearly what its strategy is and the associated costs to the taxpayer.

Recommendation: Within six months, the Department should write to the Committee, setting out its plan for deciding on the long-term use of plutonium. The NDA should also write to the Committee explaining fully its contingency arrangements to manage plutonium at the site, and the reasons behind cost escalations and delays.

NDA’s Integrated radioactive waste management strategy executive summary,issued on 30 July 2018, states:

“In the 2016 NDA Strategy we made a commitment to develop a single radioactive waste strategy for the NDA Group. This strategy applies to all radioactive waste generated within the NDA estate, (including materials that may become waste at some point in the future).  The radioactive waste strategy provides a high level framework within which waste management decisions can be taken flexibly, to ensure safe, environmentally acceptable and cost-effective solutions that reflect the nature of the radioactive waste concerned.   A single radioactive waste strategy provides a consolidated position and greater clarity of our strategic needs in this area; promotes cross-category waste management opportunities; supports a risk-based approach to waste management and provides an integrated programme to deliver suitable and timely waste management infrastructure to support the NDA mission.”

Like motherhood and apple pie, it is impossible to oppose this proposition. However, because of the indecision over the future fate of the 140,000kilogrammes of plutonium at Sellafield, integrating its custody into the overall waste management strategy is  hamstrung.

As the PAC states, Government indecision has left the NDA unable to decide plan between: “readying the plutonium stockpile for long-term storage in a geological disposal facility (that has yet to be constructed); or reusing it as fuel in new nuclear power stations

NDA should press ministers to decide on declaring all the separated plutonium as a waste, as there is no  UK facility available to turn it into a fuel; and to construct one bespoke at Sellafield is likely to cost billions of pounds; there is no   national or international market that makes  plutonium-based mixed oxide (MOX) fuel economically competitive, and any re-use of plutonium in MOX nuclear fuel increases manifold the  opportunities for terrorists to disrupt facilities and transports, and  continued plutonium infrastructure  creates conditions for proliferation (see the new 150-page international study covering, UK. Belgium, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, and Switzerland ‘Plutonium for Energy: explaining the global decline of MOX’ edited by Alan J. Kuperman, Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, University of Texas at Austin, October 2018;


The Sellafield Ltd report on  research priorities states that amongst the technology  priorities is work on : Novel materials which may have the potential for future uses or to replace existing materials.


I believe that NDA/Sellafield Ltd  needs to prioritise the urgent development to ceramic matrices to immobilize the plutonium currently being stored in inadequate temporary canisters in the Sellafield Plutonium store, in readiness for long- term secure stewardship.


As a start Sellafield Ltd should publish the joint research it has done collaboratively with the  national Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), Nexia Solutions and the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) on plutonium containment.





I share NDA’s stress on the importance of information governance. So the paragraph

5.2.2 on Information governance is concerning for what it omits. It asserts: ”we will work with our SLCs, subsidiaries and regulators to ensure that effective knowledge management systems are maintained.”


The fact this omits  to include  nongovernmental  environmental group (ngo) stakeholders, interested academics  and trades unions, limits the  scope of the governance of information to a too narrow group, The wider stakeholder community needs to  be incorporated, and participation needs to be paid for, including  the independent expertise these stakeholders may wish to invite to participate.


NDA needs to be involved in the European Joint Programming first  round of co-operation on long term radioactive waste management, which will start its collaborative research  in 2019,  and which does include ngos and independent experts




“Effective and robust information and knowledge management systems are necessary for the development of strategic opportunities for the implementation of the baseline plan. Furthermore, knowledge retention over very long timescales, such as many decades to a century or more, is an essential consideration.  The ultimate product of radioactive waste management is a waste package and its associated waste package record. The waste package record has to support future operations over the lifetime of the waste package namely interim storage, transport and disposal. The requirements around what information constitutes a waste package record for each step are broadly the same but there are some specific differences and so each lifecycle step must be considered.  Plans are already in place to ensure that a robust information governance process is in place and we will work with our SLCs, subsidiaries and regulators to ensure that effective knowledge management systems are maintained”



Annex 1


This is part of the new PAC repoirt with most worrying  sections highlighted.-DL

Progress and constraints to reducing risk at Sellafield

Nuclear Decommissioning Authority: risk reduction at Sellafield

1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy (the Department), the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), Sellafield Limited and UK Government Investments (UKGI) to examine the NDA’s progress with reducing risks at Sellafield.

2.The NDA is a non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department and overseen by UKGI. The NDA is responsible for operating and decommissioning 17 nuclear reactor and research sites in the UK. Sellafield is the largest and most hazardous of the NDA’s sites, home to ageing facilities that store radioactive nuclear materials, including 40% of the global stockpile of plutonium. The NDA oversees and funds the work of Sellafield Limited, a site licence company tasked with daily operations to decommission the site. It also carries out other commercial activities, such as reprocessing spent fuel, that generate an income for the Exchequer. In 2017–18, the NDA spent £2 billion on activities at Sellafield. It expects operations to decommission Sellafield to continue for over 100 years at an estimated cost of £91 billion.

4.The NDA’s biggest challenges, and those that post the highest risks at Sellafield, include decommissioning four legacy ponds and silos, and managing plutonium stores. The Office for Nuclear Regulation regards these risks to be intolerable, meaning the NDA should prioritise reducing the risk in these facilities, and that other considerations, such as funding, should not hinder its progress in doing so. The NDA estimates that it will take decades to decommission these facilities. For example, the Magnox swarf storage silo, considered the greatest risk at Sellafield, will pose a significant risk until 2050, when work to retrieve the waste is expected to complete. For these programmes to proceed, they often require the successful completion of one or more major projects which means that progress at Sellafield must be assessed through at both programme and project level. The NDA has a set of 14 major projects that support the completion of these long-term programmes of work, with a lifetime cost of £6 billion.

Constraints to faster progress

9.The NDA and Sellafield Limited told us that their strategy for decommissioning Sellafield is based on prioritising the reduction of the highest risks first. The NDA and the Department confirmed that Sellafield Limited’s ability to carry out its work is not constrained by the available of funding. The NDA and Sellafield Limited consider that there are, however, three factors that constrain their ability to make faster progress at Sellafield. These are: the physical congestion of the Sellafield site; challenges to workforce productivity; and the complexity of the decommissioning task, which often requires bespoke innovative technologies, such as the six new reinforced doors the NDA recently installed at the side of the pile fuel cladding silo that has enabled Sellafield Limited to start the retrieval of waste materials earlier.

10.The NDA and Sellafield Limited told us that turning Sellafield Limited into a direct subsidiary has allowed for more innovative thinking around these constraints. Sellafield Limited also said that its new masterplan takes into account the congestion of the site. However, we were concerned that the NDA and Sellafield Limited have not carried out any analysis to understand how and to what extent these perceived constraints affect the pace of, and options for, decommissioning. Without this thorough understanding, the NDA and Sellafield Limited cannot be sure that their strategy for decommissioning the site is the right one, nor can we be sure that they are doing everything they can that they are doing everything they can to reduce risk at Sellafield as quickly as possible.

Lessons learned

11.The NDA has cancelled three major projects since 2012 because it says it has found more cost-effective ways to complete the work. The NDA spent £586 million in taxpayer money on these projects before it decided to cancel them. For two of the cancelled projects, the Silo direct encapsulation (SDP) plant and the Box transfer facility, the NDA expected combined cost overruns of £2.1 billion and delays of over 9 years before it decided to write them off. The NDA told us that to comply with the Office for Nuclear Regulation, it must always have a strategy in place to manage high-risk facilities. It therefore progressed work on the SDP project because it was the most technically advanced option at the time. Meanwhile, it worked with universities to pursue other strategies that would simplify the work and make it more cost-effective.

12.The NDA also cancelled a third project that involved building new storage tanks to store highly active liquor. It told us that following its decision to end reprocessing activity at Sellafield in 2020, the Office for Nuclear Regulation agreed to allow Sellafield Limited to use two tanks, previously kept empty to provide reserve capacity, in place of building new tanks. Sellafield Limited told us that while the regulator has been holding it to account, it has also been supportive in trying to find new ways of completing the work on the site more quickly and cost-effectively.

13.The NDA and Sellafield Limited have not quantified what, if any, benefits have been derived from these incurred costs and the work undergone up to the point the projects were cancelled. The NDA asserted that it would find alternative uses for some cancelled projects, like the box transfer facility. It also told us it is getting better at learning the lessons from strategy changes and from past mistakes. But it acknowledged that it is not yet able to evaluate to what extent changes in strategy have generated savings to the taxpayer.

Progress with managing plutonium

14.The Department is responsible for setting government policy for dealing with the UK’s stock of plutonium in the long term. The Department told us that there are two options available: readying plutonium for long-term storage in the geological disposal facility (GDF) that the Department expects will be available by 2048; or reuse the plutonium as fuel in new nuclear power stations. Either option would require several decades to be implemented. When we last examined the Department’s progress in dealing with the UK’s stock of plutonium in 2014, we found that, while the Department’s preferred option was to reuse plutonium as fuel, there was not yet a market, or any power stations, that required fuel from reused plutonium. Four years later, the Department is not any closer to deciding a course of action. It told us that is not comfortable with any of the potential options for managing plutonium other than disposing it in the GDF. In the meantime, the NDA must ensure that the stockpile currently at Sellafield continues to be stored safely and securely for decades to come.

15.The NDA asserted that it faces three main challenges in managing the plutonium stockpile at Sellafield. First, the majority of the plutonium canisters need to be repackaged to ensure they can be safely stored over the long term. The NDA’s project to build a repackaging plant at Sellafield to enable this is still in the early design phase. The project is already experiencing significant delays and is expected to cost £1 billion more than originally planned. Secondly, the NDA has recently discovered that a number of plutonium canisters are decaying faster than it had expected. These canisters will need to be repackaged before the repackaging plant is available, so the NDA will have to implement contingency plans in the meantime. Lastly, the two stores that the NDA are constructing to hold these canisters are expected to cost £200 million more than expected. The NDA has not yet set out its strategy for these contingency arrangements or their associated costs.

16 Qq 21, 60, 62

21 Qq 74–78, 82

28 Qq 17, 46, 47, 53


PDF, 8.07MB, 32 pages

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Oxford groves of academe suffer nuclear knowledge meltdown

Letter submitted to Financial Times:

I have rarely, if ever, read such an egregiously inaccurate letter as that from Professors Anton van der Merwe and Wade Allison of the University of Oxford. (“Policymakers should focus on building nuclear plants,” Letters, 29 October;

What on earth has happened to scholarship at the august academia at Oxford?
The authors put France on an energy pedestal, asserting it has already shown that "building nuclear reactors allows greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced very rapidly at low cost."

Just over last weekend it was reported that the French public is becoming increasingly less in favour of nuclear power, with over half (53%) of French people stating they now oppose nuclear energy, in a survey conducted by the pollster Odoxa, compared to 67% who said in another  poll five years ago they supported nuclear power. (“French public opinion growing against nuclear power”; Connexionfrance, 29 Oct;

The French media last week reported that France’s environment minister, François de Rugy, has insisted no decisions will now be taken before 2021 to build any new French-designed European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs), due to escalating costs caused by persistent unresolved technical problems with  pressure vessel steel and quality control at steel forges

Additionally, on 11 October Le Monde reported Pierre-Franck Chevet, the outgoing président de l’Autorité de sûreté nucléaire (ASN),  the French nuclear safety authority, warned about the future safety concerns over the French nuclear progrsmme, as well as highlighting skills shortages. (Nucléaire : « La France fait face à une perte d’expérience »

Moreover, a detailed academic research paper by Professor Arnulf Grubler of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis - based in Laxenburg, Austria - that reviewed the history and the economics of the French PWR nuclear programme, found that even this most successful nuclear expansion in France  was characterized by a substantial escalation of real-term construction costs, concluding:

 “the French nuclear case illustrates the perils of the assumption of robust learning effects resulting in lowered costs over time in the scale-up of large-scale, complex new energy supply technologies. The uncertainties in anticipated learning effects of new technologies might be much larger that often assumed, including also cases of “negative learning” in which specific costs increase rather than decrease with accumulated experience.” (“The costs of the French nuclear scale-up: A case of negative learning by doing,” Energy Policy, Volume 38, Issue 9, September 2010, Pages 5174-5188;

Surely the Oxford professors were aware of these problems before submitting their letter.

 Policymakers should focus on building nuclear plants
Financial Times, 29 October 2018
     From Prof Anton van der Merwe and Emeritus Prof Wade Allison


   Martin Wolf, in “ The shameful inaction over climate change” (October 24), reports that, in order to minimise the risk of catastrophic climate change, net greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced rapidly to zero. But how may this be achieved with any confidence? France and Ontario have already shown that building nuclear reactors allows greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced very rapidly at low cost. So why aren’t other countries rapidly expanding nuclear power? Largely because of two tragic misconceptions.

The first misconception is that radioactivity is very dangerous. Fear of radioactivity is absurdly high, given actual evidence of its health risks. Even the most catastrophic nuclear accidents, such as at Chernobyl and Fukushima, caused few deaths (43 following Chernobyl, none after Fukushima). Indeed, nuclear energy has a much better safety record than fossil fuel generators, and is as safe as any renewable energy. Fear of radioactivity has resulted in onerous regulations, which have made nuclear energy unnecessarily expensive.

The second misconception is that renewables can meet our energy needs. Unfortunately their low energy density means that unfeasibly large (country-sized) installations of solar panels/wind farms and hydroelectric schemes would be required, immensely damaging to the environment. More serious is the intermittent supply, which requires renewables to be backed up by carbon fuel generators. No storage technology on the scale required to overcome this intermittency is available or likely.In spite of these misconceptions, environmentalists and policymakers concentrate on plans to increase renewable capacity, a strategy that greatly increases the risk of catastrophic climate change. They should be focusing more on building nuclear energy plants.

Prof Anton van der Merwe, Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, UK; Emeritus Prof Wade Allison, Department of Physics and Keble College, University of Oxford, UK

Monday, 29 October 2018

UK agrees with Russia in nuclear weapons statement to United Nations

While the British media were concentrating on the 2018 Budget being unveiled by the Chancellor  in Parliament, another arm of the UK Government  - the Foreign Office - was signing up to a collective statement with Russia, the US, France and China, on nuclear weapons. (

In one remarkable passage from the collective statement (reproduced in full  blow from the Russian foreign Ministry) by the Permanent 5 (P5) on the United Nations Security Council,presented to the UN General Assembly they assert:

We remain committed under the Treaty [on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, NPT]  to the pursuit of good faith negotiations on effective measures related to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control. We support the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all. We are committed to working to make the international environment more conducive to further progress on nuclear disarmament.”

This is utter hypocrisy, especially from the United Kingdom, which has never put its nuclear  arms into multilateral  disarmament negotiations, not even once since the UK signed the NPT fifty years ago in July 1968. Indeed, at the same time as the P5 statement was being issued, Chancellor Philip Hammond was boasting to the House of Commons he was making available an extra £1 billion to "boost our cyber capabilities and our anti-submarine capabilities and to maintain the pace of the Dreadnought programme to ensure a continuous at sea deterrent".(“Budget: Extra £1 Billion Given To UK Defence, ForcesNet, 29 October 2018)

That translates into the Trident WMD submarine replacement programme continues full steam ahead.

The P5 also assert in a full frontal attack on a nuclear disarmament treaty backed last year by 122 countries the United Nations “It is in this context that we reiterate our opposition to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). We firmly believe that the best way to achieve a world without nuclear weapons is through a gradual process that takes into account the international security environment. This proven approach to nuclear disarmament has produced tangible results, including deep reductions in the global stockpiles of nuclear weapons.”

On Monday the organization, the International Campaign to Abolish nuclear Weapons (ICAN) whose  grassroots campaign led to the TPNW,- and won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts- announced the launch of their new Nuclear Weapons Ban Monitor on-line publication. the first subscriber should be the disarmament departments of the foreign ministries of the P5. And pronto!



Joint Statement by China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom and United States




We, the nuclear weapon States recognized by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, reaffirm our commitment to the Treaty, in all its aspects, fifty years since its signature. 

This landmark Treaty has provided the essential foundation for international efforts to stem the threat that nuclear weapons would spread across the globe, and has thereby limited the risk of nuclear war. It has provided the framework within which the peaceful uses of nuclear technology – for electricity, medicine, agriculture and industry – could be promoted and shared, to the benefit of humanity. And by helping to ease international tensions and create conditions of stability, security and trust among nations, it has allowed for a vital and continuing contribution to nuclear disarmament.

We pledge our full and continued support for the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which plays a critical role in NPT implementation, both in promoting the fullest possible cooperation on the peaceful uses of nuclear technology and in applying safeguards and verifying that nuclear programmes are exclusively for peaceful purposes. We emphasise the need to further strengthen the IAEA safeguards system, including the universalisation of the Additional Protocol.

We remain committed under the Treaty to the pursuit of good faith negotiations on effective measures related to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control. We support the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all. We are committed to working to make the international environment more conducive to further progress on nuclear disarmament.

It is in this context that we reiterate our opposition to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. We firmly believe that the best way to achieve a world without nuclear weapons is through a gradual process that takes into account the international security environment. This proven approach to nuclear disarmament has produced tangible results, including deep reductions in the global stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

The TPNW fails to address the key issues that must be overcome to achieve lasting global nuclear disarmament. It contradicts, and risks undermining, the NPT. It ignores the international security context and regional challenges, and does nothing to increase trust and transparency between States. It will not result in the elimination of a single weapon. It fails to meet the highest standards of non-proliferation. It is creating divisions across the international non-proliferation and disarmament machinery, which could make further progress on disarmament even more difficult.

We will not support, sign or ratify this Treaty. The TPNW will not be binding on our countries, and we do not accept any claim that it contributes to the development of customary international law; nor does it set any new standards or norms. We call on all countries that are considering supporting the TPNW to reflect seriously on its implications for international peace and security.

Rather, we urge all States to commit to the continued success of the NPT: to ensure compliance, to promote universalisation, to ensure the highest standards of non-proliferation, and to respond to ongoing and emerging proliferation challenges, wherever they occur. In this context our five countries reiterate our commitment to continue our individual and collective efforts within the NPT framework to advance nuclear disarmament goals and objectives.

Friday, 26 October 2018

British bad faith over nuclear disarmament reaches half century

CND general secretary Dr Kate Hudson gave an accurate potted history of the opposition to siting in the UK of US intermediate range nuclear weapons [INF] (“Nuclear escalation must be resisted,” Guardian, letter, 25 October)

This followed your foreign affairs commentator, Simon Tisdall, making the interesting proposal in his article on the decision by President Trump to withdraw from the INF treaty (“A nuclear threat worse than the cold war: now it’s a possibility,” 24 October 2018;  that now is the time for the UK and France to unilaterally give up their nuclear weapons “pour encourager les autres” such as Israel, India and Pakistan to do the same.

Unfortunately, the UK government seem to think the opposite, and back Trump in dumping the INF treaty.

But there is a chink of light on the horizon: in responding to an ‘urgent question’ on the US decision on INF in Parliament on Thursday, foreign office minister Mark Field said:

“It is important to recognise that the US has not yet withdrawn from this treaty. While the treaty remains in force, we shall continue to support it, and in particular to press Russia to return to full and verifiable compliance. Indeed, it is worth noting .. that Presidents Trump and Putin plan to meet in France next month—on Remembrance Sunday—to discuss this further…. It is very much the policy to reduce the number of nuclear weapons. We shall continue to work with all partners across the international community to prevent proliferation and to make progress on multilateral nuclear disarmament.” (Hansard, 25 October;

Mr Field then told Conservative MP Jeremy Lefroy that “I reassure my hon. Friend that a lot of work [ on nuclear disarmament] does go on,” but failed to give any details

The UK has an international legal pledge to enter “in good faith” into multilateral negotiations towards nuclear disarmament  “at an early date “ since July 1968, when it signed the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.

Yet the UK has not once in 50 years entered any of its nuclear weapons into  multilateral  nuclear negotiations! That demonstrates very bad faith indeed.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Paul Flynn MP and Nuclear (Mis-) Management Partners

Today veteran Labour MP Paul Flynn, whom I worked for and with for over 30 years, announced his  planned near-term retirement from Parliament, after 31 years in the House of Commons, due to increasing ill health ( he is 83).

Paul has been the back- bencher's back bencher, the scourge of the  Executive (Tory, Coalition or New Labour Governments), whether in the chamber of the House of Commons or  in the several select committees on which he served, inflicting  many witnesses to forensic and unstinting  scrutiny. Parliament will miss him greatly.

I  reproduce below a splendid speech he made  in a Westminster Hall debate he initiated  almost exactly 10 years ago. Despite the  then Labour energy minister spitting that Paul's "concoction of conspiracy theory, innuendo and hyperbole has reached new heights in the House." Paul's accusations turned out to be underestimates of the dissembling of the Government when Nuclear Management Partners were later sacked from their scandalously mismanaged contract for Sellafield.

Newport West MP Paul Flynn to stand down after 31 years

BBC on Line, 25 October 2018

 Copy this link has been MP for Newport West since 1987 One of the longest-serving Welsh MPs has announced he is to step down after 31 years in Parliament.

Newport West MP Paul Flynn, 83, said failing health meant he will relinquish his seat "as soon as possible".
Labour's Mr Flynn was first elected in 1987 and has won seven elections since then.

Westminster Hall Hansard, 19 November  2008 : Column 119WH

Nuclear Industry Finance

4 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): This is a lamentable saga of a breakdown of parliamentary accountability on nuclear industry finances. It is a matter of the gravest importance, involving the most hazardous nuclear site in the country and huge sums of money. Initially, the contract was worth about £7 billion—£1 billion a year—but eventually it could cost up to £93 billion.

The Government have been bewitched by the pied piper of nuclear power, just three years after deciding that nuclear power was financially an unattractive prospect. They are now uncritically embracing it as a panacea. That might explain the disgraceful events that have taken place. It may also be a subterfuge to bury embarrassing news on the continuing saga and the enormous cost of the nuclear legacy, and also to disguise the fact that the Government are dumping a potential multi-billion pound liability on the taxpayer in a wholly unwarranted and possibly illegal new subsidy for the nuclear industry.

All hon. Members except two have been denied any chance of commenting on the policy, which is a parliamentary outrage. Early-day motion 2321, which was signed by more 30 hon. Members, asked for action on the matter.

On 14 July, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks)—I am delighted to say that he is in his position today—wrote to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and sent a copy to the Chairman of the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee, in which he set out the proposed arrangements for a public sector supported nuclear indemnity for the winner of the competition for the parent body organisation to take over the management of the massive Sellafield site. He inserted, inter alia:

“Given the low probability of a claim being brought, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has assessed that the benefits of engaging a contractor will far outweigh the small risk that the indemnity may be called on.”

He said, “small risk”. That is a key issue. The risk was so serious that the main contractor said publicly that without the indemnity his company would withdraw from this very lucrative contract. He said that it was not prepared to take on the insurance risk. The Minister’s letter also said:

“I am placing a copy of this letter and the Departmental Minute in the Library of the House.”

The Minister placed the letter in the Library, but not on 14 July. It appeared in the Library on 15 October —75 days after the final date on which hon. Members could object. As hon. Members have only two working weeks in which to comment on such departmental minutes, that effectively meant that no MP, other than the two Committee Chairmen, had sight of the minutes within the specified period. That alone should invalidate any subsequent attempt by Ministers to push ahead with the concluding transfer of the management contract for Sellafield. None the less, they concluded the contract on 6 October, the first day that Parliament resumed after the summer recess.

Yesterday, in our splendid debate on the feed-in tariff, I heard the Minister talking about how slowly Parliament moves on many desirable objectives. However, in the
19 Nov 2008 : Column 120WH
case of nuclear, the Government move with the speed of a striking cobra. When it comes to renewables, their actions are very similar to that of an arthritic sloth, yet speed was of the essence in this matter.

By coincidence, I tabled a detailed question to the Minister on 14 July. I asked him

“what recent communications or discussions (a) he, (b) other departmental Ministers and (c) officials, have had with (i) the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and (ii) consortium applicants for the Sellafield decommissioning contract on the indemnification of the contract holder against claims arising from property damage, the cost to human health, or the cost of measures of reinstatement of any significantly impaired environment in the event of an on-site accident or other incident resulting in the dispersal of radioactive materials off-site.”

Therefore, the Department should have been well aware of my interest and possibly that of other hon. Members. The reply came back, which said, inter alia:

“It would not be viable for any of the bidders to proceed without an indemnity because any fee earning benefits of the contract would be overwhelmed”—

interesting choice of words—

“by the potential liabilities. The NDA has assessed that the benefits of engaging a new contractor far outweigh the remote risk that an indemnity might be called upon”—[Official Report, 14 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 76W.]

The Minister chose not to inform me at that time—this was in July again—that he had written to the Chairmen of the two Select Committees and that he had not put the departmental minute in the Library. Perhaps the Minister could explain why that was the case.

I pursued my inquiries. I tabled a question on the insurance indemnification and asked what the financial value was of the insurance indemnity. The answer said:

“While the impact of any call on the proposed nuclear indemnity could be very high, there is an extremely small possibility only of the indemnity ever being used, and it is therefore not possible to put a meaningful financial value on the indemnity.”—[Official Report, 22 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 1146W.]

May I gently suggest to the Department that the reason why it cannot put a value on the risk is not because the risk is small, but because the liability is enormous, given the cost of clearing up after any nuclear accident? Now, that responsibility is being put on the backs of taxpayers, because neither the contractor nor commercial insurers will accept the risk.

On 28 August, during the recess, I again wrote to the Secretary of State to find out what was happening with the PBO transfer. I said:

“When does the Government intend to place a similar departmental memorandum”—

to the one that accompanied the Drigg PBO transfer in February—

“before Parliament.”

I also asked him whether he would place into the public domain

“all the correspondence”—

including letters, e-mails and memorandums—

“between ministers or officials in BERR and the NDA in regard to the indemnification for Sellafield.”

That has never been done. I ask the Minister to do that now.

In response to my further inquiries and to my point of order on 22 October, I received a further reply from the Minister. He talked about the schedule for evaluation
19 Nov 2008 : Column 121WH
of the PBO bids provided for the announcement of a preferred bidder on or around 11 July. He went on to talk about the rigour of the programme that had been carried out. He was not very convincing. The Minister also said that there was no scope for slippage in the contract, because it would cause problems if a new contractor had to be found for Sellafield.

The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform circumvented the usual procedures in place to inform Parliament, and privately wrote to the two Select Committee Chairmen instead, and failed to lodge the minute. On the same day as the Minister’s letter to me, 27 October, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee—a greatly respected senior MP—wrote to the Secretary of State saying that the guidance to Ministers in the manual “Managing Public Money” is unequivocal. He cited the relevant extract:

“It is essential to give Parliament prompt and timely notice of any significant commitments, including contingent liabilities into which the Government intends to enter.”

The Chairman also said that the Public Accounts Committee will feel that the period for objection should be reopened. That is the same view as that of those who signed the early-day motion.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I commend my hon. Friend’s forensic work on the issue and support his call for full and transparent accountability in respect of Sellafield, as well as for any financial support from taxpayers or consumers for future nuclear power, whether through subsidies or more covertly through indemnities or guarantees, none of which, on his evidence, would be in the public interest.

Paul Flynn: I am grateful for that intervention, and I agree entirely with the points made.

Things get even more worrying in the rest of the Secretary of State’s letter of 3 November. He admitted that hon. Members had not been informed due to “an administrative error”, but then went further, seemingly denying his own claim and—this is rather alarming—attempting to justify the strategy of circumventing appropriate parliamentary scrutiny. He said:

“‘Managing Public Money’ sets out two procedures for notifying an impending indemnity—notifying the House or writing to the Chairs of the relevant Committees. These are alternates.”

That is the letter that he wrote challenging the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.

I believe that what the Secretary of State said and his interpretation lay down a precedent for future policy. We must resist the idea that something of enormous cost and importance—a huge burden on taxpayers now and in the future—need not go through parliamentary scrutiny, but that one or two Select Committee Chairmen can place a tick on it. It is an extraordinary usurpation of the rights of parliamentarians to suggest it, but that is what he is saying:

“These are alternates. In this case we wrote to you”—

that is, to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee—

“instead of notifying the House, undertaking to withhold final approval to proceed”

until there was a reply.

19 Nov 2008 : Column 122WH

Of course, there was a reply. The Chairman did not object, and so the process continued. The Secretary of State said:

“No objections were raised and you confirmed in your letter to Malcolm Wicks of 22 July...that you had no objection to the Department’s proposal”.

What about all the rest of us? Many of us did have objections. It was clear from the flow of parliamentary questions—I have quoted mine alone, but other people have been involved—that we had no opportunity whatever to object, because we did not know that the minute was there until 75 days after the period of objection. I am sure that hon. Members present will agree that that is an utterly unacceptable rationalisation of something that was at best a foul-up, but looks more like a cover-up.

I would like to draw attention to the question of risk and how serious it is. The Washington-led management consortium URS was reticent to take over the insurance for Sellafield because, as its representatives said in a public meeting, it is highly hazardous and a very dangerous nuclear site. Who says so? In October 2006, Justice Openshaw presided at the trial of British Nuclear Group for a processing accident at its Thorp site. His conclusion about the hazards of Sellafield was:

“By reason of its huge scale, its nature and its complexity the most significant and potentially the most hazardous nuclear site in this country.”

Even the British Nuclear Group’s own board of inquiry report on the incident, which involved something called a feed clarification cell, stated:

“Given the history of such events so far, it seems likely that there will remain a significant chance of further plant failures occurring in the future”—

I stress this—

“even with comprehensive implementations”

of the report’s recommendations. BNG decided to change the system, but said that the risk was still there.

There are extraordinary statistics, including in the memorandum submitted to the Select Committee on Defence in January by the international nuclear safety expert Dr. Gordon Thompson, executive director of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies. He said that

“the B215 facility at Sellafield...houses 21 steel tanks”.

4.15 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.25 pm

On resuming—

Paul Flynn: From the evidence given by Gordon Thompson, the nuclear specialist, to the Defence Committee, I want to give one example of the danger of Sellafield. He described the amount of high-level radioactive waste there as containing

“about 8 million Terabequerels...of caesium-137”.

He went on to say that, by comparison,

“the 1986 Chernobyl reactor accident released to the atmosphere about 90,000 TBq...of caesium-137”.

At the time of the Chernobyl accident, we were assured that it was a mild risk, and yet the sheep in north Wales that were contaminated 22 years ago are still under
19 Nov 2008 : Column 123WH
control orders now. To put it another way, there was 27 kg of caesium-137 at Chernobyl; there is 2,400 kg at Sellafield.

No doubt the company that took over these consortiums exercised due diligence before reaching the conclusions that it did. Hon. Members of all parties should collectively regard what has taken place since then as unacceptable, sharp and evasive practice in a modern parliamentary democracy.

I urge the Minister when he replies to put away any prepared notes that he has and just respond to these points: I ask him to commit Her Majesty’s Government to suspending the current contract between the Nuclear Commissioning Authority and the new USR Washington-led parent body organisation, or PBO; I ask him to look again at the subsidy that is being paid and to check that it is within European rules; I ask him to postpone the planned go-ahead on 24 November until such time as the House has had the opportunity to scrutinise in detail all the financial implications for taxpayers of this indemnification procedure; and I ask him to set up a fully independent examination of Sellafield’s risks and insurability.

Finally, the series of events that I have just described besmirches the good name of Parliament by contemptuously disregarding the rights of parliamentarians. The Government and the nuclear industry cannot bury the true cost of nuclear power. It is our responsibility to clear up that mess, but they must be open and transparent. In their plans for future nuclear operations, they have tended to disregard the vast cost of nuclear waste and, in this case, the insurance that is an essential part of that cost. I urge the Government and the nuclear industry to face up to their demons and ensure that the industry pays its full costs.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the Minister, I inform hon. Members that this debate will now end at 4.42 pm, subject to there not being another Division in the House.

19 Nov 2008 : Column 123WH—continued

4.28 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Mr. Mike O'Brien): This issue arose as a result of an administrative error by a junior official in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. That official was told that the letter to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee on this matter needed to go in the Library. It did not go in the Library. When it was checked, some months later and after the parliamentary recess, whether that letter had gone in the Library, it was found that it had not gone in. On that day, that letter was put in the Library.

In the last 15 minutes or so, I have heard references to cover-up, to conspiracies and to contempt of Parliament, and I say this to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn): his concoction of conspiracy theory, innuendo and hyperbole has reached new heights in the House. It is the case that there was a minor error by a junior official, who should not be crucified for that error by my hon. Friend; that would be unworthy of my hon. Friend.

This happened within the Department. There was no requirement on the then Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm
19 Nov 2008 : Column 124WH
Wicks), to place the letter in the Library. He took the view that that was necessary in order to be open about this matter. An error was made by a junior Department official—humans are fallible—but I expect better of the hon. Gentleman than to talk about cover-ups and conspiracy. This attempt to manufacture a mountain out of such a tiny molehill is ridiculous.

The idea that the letter was secret is complete nonsense; it is a farce. Letters to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Public Accounts are not secret documents. They belong to the Committee, and members of the Committee can see them and refer them to the press. Far from trying to mount some sort of cover-up, as my hon. Friend suggests, my right hon. Friend was trying to be open with the House of Commons and to make sure that Members knew what was going on. I utterly refute the allegations, innuendo and concoctions that my hon. Friend has put forward. It is unworthy of him, and I expected much more from him.

Paul Flynn: Will the Minister explain why the Members who were interested in this matter were not informed? There is a great deal more to this. The Department tried to blame the Library, saying that it had not told the truth. The Department also said, in a press release to the Western Mail, that the reason why it was done was that it was a rushed procedure and it did not have any time. The Department has been wholly consistent on that, but it has given two versions. The first is that it did not have time and had to rush things through, and the second is the one that the Minister is giving now, that there was a failure.

Mr. O'Brien: I am sorry that my hon. Friend believes that he should be specifically informed of such matters above other Members. The two people who were informed were those who were clearly in a position to get the letter. The Public Accounts Committee Chairman was to receive the letter and would therefore clearly be informed. The letter was put in the Library to make it available to anyone who wanted to read it.

If my hon. Friend has a long-term opposition to nuclear, that is fine. I have no problem with that. Many people in the House have long-term oppositions to nuclear, but they do not concoct stories, conspiracies and cover-ups out of nothing as he has done. I have seldom felt so worried by the way in which stories are made up out of nothing as when I was listening to him today. There has been a regrettable error, and the Department regrets that things were not done as they should have been. My right hon. Friend wanted things to be done properly and ordered them to be done. He took a decision, not because the procedure required him to, but because he wanted things to be done openly. My hon. Friend suggests that the opposite was the case, but he is simply wrong.

My hon. Friend accuses the Government of dumping liability on the public, but who on earth does he think owned those nuclear power stations? Does he think that they were somehow owned by a private company when they were created? They were owned by the public—he knows that. No liability is being dumped on anyone, secretly or otherwise; there is a public liability. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has been set up to deal with the public liabilities that we have as a country and as a Government. We are trying to deal with those
19 Nov 2008 : Column 125WH
liabilities in a sensible, coherent way, and to ensure that that is done openly and with full consultation. There has been widespread consultation on this matter. The idea that something is happening secretly is nonsensical, as this matter has been addressed in the blaze of publicity.

The nature of the indemnity is very clear. There is a legislative restriction, in terms of the Government’s liability, so that they are able to deal with those liabilities if an incident happens in the UK. Under the Paris and Brussels conventions, other countries have signed up to agreements on how nuclear incidents might be dealt with, but the United States is not a signatory to some of those. My hon. Friend says that we are failing to put a value on the indemnity, but what is the indemnity about? It concerns the remote possibility that, if an incident happened in the UK, an American court might take a view about a court fine or settlement over there.

All the companies that bid in the process said that they were quite to happy to undertake the task, but that they would not be responsible for a liability that some American or other court, which has not signed the Brussels and Paris conventions, might impose. The NDA therefore decided, quite properly and openly, that it would have to come forward with the indemnity. When that was done, my right hon. Friend wrote to the Public Accounts Committee, and that letter was to go into the Library. An administrative error, and nothing more, resulted in that not happening. The day that we found out that it had not happened, it was immediately corrected. That is what happened, and all the other claims do not add up to a hill of beans, if we are talking about hills and mountains.

Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): I am gratified by the way in which my hon. and learned Friend is dissecting the incoherent concoction that has been put before him. Much has been said about the speed with which the process has been carried out, but does he agree that speed was of the essence? The regulator, the NDA and the Government all wanted the process to be addressed with speed, and speed was essential for operations at the Sellafield site to remain both smooth and safe.

Mr. O'Brien: That is the case. We had to undertake the process, for which negotiations and bids were received, and the letter of indemnity had to be agreed at the end of that process. As soon as it was agreed, it was decided that Parliament should be informed and that a copy of the letter to the Chairman should be put in the Library.

I want to make it clear that it is the Government’s responsibility to deal with and to pay for decommissioning and to clean up our historical civil nuclear liability. The NDA’s mission is therefore funded from the public purse, and is subject to parliamentary approval for expenditure and funding in the normal way. Since its creation, significant resources have been allocated to decommissioning. The NDA’s total spend was £2.4 billion in 2005-06, rising to £2.8 billion in 2007-08. Its budget for the next three years is set to rise to more than
19 Nov 2008 : Column 126WH
£8 billion, which is the largest amount ever spent on UK civil nuclear clean-up programmes over that sort of period.

The competition at the heart of this issue was also at the heart of the NDA’s mission to deliver fast, cost-effective clean-up. In March, the competition for the low-level waste facility near Drigg was completed, and the Sellafield competition is on course for completion on 24 November. I am letting my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West know that. Those are significant milestones, and indemnity is a common feature in those sorts of commercial contracts.

In the case of the NDA’s estate, the decision whether to grant a nuclear or other form of indemnity to a contractor is a commercial matter for the NDA. It approaches each competition on a case-by-case basis. If giving indemnity represents good value for money, it will consider giving it on sensible commercial terms—I should like to emphasise that point.

Paul Flynn: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I have given way already. It is about time that I set out my case to my hon. Friend, because I would like him to listen to one or two things. We have listened to his views at some length, so perhaps he would care to listen to some of my replies to his points.

In the UK, claims relating to third-party damage arising out of nuclear occurrence are exclusively regulated by the Nuclear Installations Act 1965, which implemented the principles long established in the Paris and Brussels conventions on third-party nuclear liability. The NIA restricts compensation claims to personal injury and property damage caused by a nuclear incident in the UK. It also excludes from making claims those who are not UK citizens or from other Paris and Brussels signatory states. The United States is not part of that arrangement.

Therefore, there is an extremely small risk—I emphasise that—of non-eligible victims taking their claims to courts elsewhere, possibly the country of the contractor, such as the United States. The NIA and the Paris convention place a financial cap on the liability of the operator, currently £140 million for standard sites, in return for the acceptance of strict and exclusive liability. Therefore, claimants do not have to prove fault, and all claims are channelled to the operator, not to his supply chains. However, any contractor whose home country is not party to the convention risks unlimited liability if an action is brought in courts in their country, for instance the US. Parties cannot obtain insurance against that. An indemnity was therefore considered appropriate against the risk of such claims arising from a nuclear incident that falls outside the protections of the Nuclear Installations Act and the Paris and Brussels conventions. There are no insurance facilities available for that risk.

I say to my hon. Friend that the matters in question have been dealt with appropriately. I apologise for the error of a junior official in the Department, and he was right to take us to task, but not in the way in which he did. He exaggerated, went way over the top in his condemnations and traduced my right hon. Friend who was seeking to be open with him and other Members, not, as he suggested, to form some sort of cover-up.