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ICONic failure to recognise nuclear security faults

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Dr. David Lowry ‒ senior international research fellow at the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts

In mid-February, the United Nations nuclear promotional and watchdog body, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) hosted an International Conference on Nuclear Security (ICONS 2020).1 The conference followed earlier high-level IAEA nuclear security meetings held in 20132 and 20163. You could be forgiven for having missed ICONS 2020, as media attention was minimal, notwithstanding the crucial importance to worldwide security of the matters discussed. Dr. David Lowry explains:

Ministers at ICONS 2020 – which attracted about 1,900 participants from more than 130 countries – agreed on the importance of effective international legal instruments for strengthening global nuclear security.4,5

The IAEA issued lots of positive statistics about ICONs, pouring out of the media briefing office like bratwurst from the sausage machine.

The accompanying Ministerial Declaration said, inter alia, "We remain concerned about existing and emerging nuclear security threats and committed to addressing such threats …"6

Federico Alfaro, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Panama and Co-President of ICONS, added: "In the coming years, global stocks of nuclear material are expected to continue growing …We cannot allow for such material to fall into the wrong hands."

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi told an ICONS ministerial side event:

"A nuclear security incident in one country could have effects far beyond that country's borders, so it is vital that all of us remain ahead of the curve in guarding against nuclear terrorism and other malicious acts."

Nuclear explosive material can and does go missing

Perhaps the most alarming element of ICONS was the disclosure of the IAEA's Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB).7 It revealed that the IAEA last year received notifications of nearly 190 incidents of nuclear and other radioactive material being out of regulatory control, including some cases of trafficking and other criminal activities.

The IAEA stresses that "with 140 participating States, the database plays an important role in fostering international cooperation and information sharing among countries. By reporting lost or stolen material to the ITDB, countries increase the chances of its recovery and reduce the opportunities for it to be used in criminal activities. The information is shared with the IAEA, other Member States and relevant international organizations supporting the retrieval of lost or stolen material and the prosecution of suspected criminals."8

In 2019, 189 incidents were reported by 36 States, indicating that unauthorized activities and events involving nuclear and other radioactive material, including incidents of trafficking and malicious use, continue to occur. Six of the incidents were related to trafficking or malicious use, continuing a slight downward trend since a peak of 20 such incidents around 15 years ago. Over the past ten years, the average number of incidents submitted to the ITDB has been 185 per year.

Since 1993, 3686 incidents have been reported to the ITDB, of which 290 involved a confirmed or likely act of trafficking or malicious use. Twelve of those incidents included high enriched uranium and two included plutonium. Radioactive sources continue to be reported as stolen or missing, underscoring the need to improve security measures for such sources, especially during transport.

IAEA: propagandist and protector

The IAEA's relatively new Director-General Grossi – probably unintentionally – revealed the dynamic tension the IAEA has in both promoting and regulating nuclear power, in his remarks to open ICONS:9

"We live in a world in which nuclear activities are growing in a very sustained way. The number of nuclear power plants, laboratories and locations dealing with nuclear material is increasing. This is a magnet for groups with malicious intent, which see in this material a possibility to create panic and bring distress and pain to our societies. Nuclear security is about more than just preventing nuclear terrorism. It is essential for ensuring that countries can enjoy the great benefits of the peaceful use of nuclear science and technology sustainably, and for maintaining public confidence. Maintaining the highest levels of nuclear security should not be seen as an obstacle to using nuclear technology, but rather as an enabler." (emphasis added)


Recognizing that collective action against transfrontier nuclear security threats requires collective international action, an International Nuclear Security Fund has been established.

The IAEA reported at the conclusion of ICONS that countries announced or confirmed a total of more than US$20 million to the IAEA Nuclear Security Fund (NSF).10 Grossi in his closing remarks said: "The pledges of contribution to the NSF is an indication of the political commitment, [as well as of the] seriousness of the mission and the gravity of the challenges."

Raja Raja Adnan, Director of the IAEA's Division of Nuclear Security, added: "The Nuclear Security Plan responds to priorities Member States have expressed. The Nuclear Security Plan 2022-2025 will be informed by the recommendations from the five high-level panels and 55 technical sessions held during ICONS 2020."

In other side events held in the margins of ICONS 2020, participants discussed the prevention and detection of trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive material, challenges of securing nuclear fuel during transport, integrating safety and security in the management of disused sealed radioactive sources, the development of regulatory infrastructure, and challenges in defining nuclear security in every language.

Flawed entrance of the new "Global Britain"

In his speech to ICONS, British minister Nadhim Zahawi asserted "an attack against a nuclear facility, or using radioactive materials, could severely harm people, our prosperity and the environment. It would damage public acceptance of nuclear technologies with far-reaching consequences," before announcing that the UK was to add £1.6m to the international nuclear security fund.11

How seriously does minister Zahawi – and the government he represents – take his own warning?

By contrast to the £1.6m set aside for nuclear security protection, what other recent expenditures on the nuclear sector in the UK have been announced? Last October, the U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson, pledged £220m of new resources for fusion R&D.12,13

Last November, the UK energy department committed an additional an initial £36m for small modular reactor (SMR) development.14 This was on top what the energy department (BEIS) told Parliament in March 2019 of up to £56m "being made available to support the development of advanced modular reactors, including up to £44m for a Feasibility and Development Project and £12m for the Office of Nuclear Regulation and Environment Agency to build the necessary capability."15

You can see from comparing these amounts – £1.6m for nuclear security contrasted with £312m collectively for news fusion and SMR development – just where nuclear security resides in the U.K. government hierarchy of nuclear priorities. Completely skewed priorities, reflecting the power of the nuclear lobby, that has failed in its mission to launch a nuclear renaissance, but has convinced under-informed ministers to throw huge amounts of new R&D resources to keep a dying industry alive, while neglecting the real challenges of nuclear insecurities.

Trans-Atlantic knowledge gaps over innovative new nuclear designs

At ICONS, Jeremy Edwards, business manager of NNL (UK National Nuclear Laboratory) informed Dr. Ed Lyman, Senior Global Security Scientist of the US Union of Concerned Scientists, about the UK using the AVERT vulnerability assessment software. Dr. Lyman said that, disturbingly, Edwards erroneously "claimed had received extensive accreditation by the US DOE" ‒ to 'optimize' – i.e. reduce ‒ security at nuclear facilities. Lyman corrected this, pointing out that DOE did not actually accredit the software for most of the applications that he discussed.

Another British contributor, Dan Hasted – Lead Security Regulator for Sellafield, Dounreay, Plutonium, & Transport at the UK nuclear regulator, Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) ‒ presented a paper in Vienna under the banner 'Nuclear security of new nuclear technologies (e.g. small modular reactors)' in the session on 'Nuclear Security: Supporting And Enabling The Peaceful Use Of Nuclear Power – Portability Of Competent Authority's Assessment Activity To Third Party States.'

Hasted both promoted innovative regulation and the early deployment of SMRs, which, as an independent regulator, it may be argued is out of place. Surely regulators must remain studiously neutral towards the merits of nuclear technology deployment.

In his opening comments, he mused: "Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and other Advanced Nuclear Technologies (ANTs) offer potential advantages in respect of being quickly deployable and requiring lower capital investments."

Hasted then added: "It is not the Competent Authority (CA)'s role to promote nuclear power but can the CA community remove barriers by working together?," and pondered "Does the importing CA start from a zero base assessment of the security characteristics and required physical protection or does it take account of the assessment activity of the exporting CA? If so, to what extent?"

He concluded: "The overall aim is for the security community, which has for long been perceived as a blocker, to enable and support" and that: "Greater collaboration between CAs could enable the potential modularisation, rapidly deployable and scalable nature of the next generation of reactors to be realised."

Regulators elide into promoters with such conclusions!

Reprinted from the energy transition website hosted by the Heinrich Boel Stiftung (Foundation),

















Sellafield, Britain's nuclear heartland

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Andrew Blowers

In the third of a series of articles on the local and social legacies of nuclear energy, Andrew Blowers looks at the search for a solution for radioactive wastes in the UK.

I still possess a lapel badge acquired back in the 1980s with the simple legend 'I've been to Sellafield!'. The badges were issued as part of a publicity campaign designed to lure tourists to Britain's notorious and (in)famous nuclear complex – the largest industrial site in the UK. The ironic challenge of the message was underlined more explicitly by a contemporary cartoon bearing the invitation to 'Visit Sellafield before Sellafield visits you'. Such messages endorsed and even promoted an image of Sellafield as distant but dangerous. Other soubriquets such as 'Sellafield – the nuclear laundry' or 'Britain's nuclear dustbin' hint at its mysterious and unglamorous purpose at the heart of the country's nuclear operations.

The most dangerous place on earth?

So what is Sellafield? Fundamentally, these days, it is the UK's primary nuclear waste-processing, management and clean-up facility. Concentrated on a compact site of 1.5 square miles is a jumble of buildings, pipes, roads, railways and waterways, randomly assembled over more than half a dozen decades, which together manage around two-thirds by radioactivity of all the radioactive wastes in the UK. The Sellafield radioactive waste component includes all the high-level wastes (less than 1% by volume, over half the radioactivity) held in liquid form or stored in vitrified blocks, and half the volume of intermediate-level wastes (the other half being held at various sites around the country). The bulk of the nation's low-level wastes (90% by volume, 0.1% radioactivity) are disposed of in a nearby shallow repository at Drigg.

In addition, Sellafield hosts the spent fuel from the Magnox reactors due to be reprocessed by the end of the decade, as well as some spent fuel from AGRs (advanced gas-cooled reactors) awaiting reprocessing or storage. Sellafield also has the world's largest single stockpile of plutonium, amounting to 123 tonnes in 2013 and rising to 140 tonnes by 2020, including around 15 tonnes currently foreign owned and formally due for repatriation in some form.

These wastes arise from the range of nuclear activities carried out since Sellafield (then Windscale) began operations in the early post-war years. They comprise wastes arising from the plant's initial military function of producing plutonium for the atom bomb and subsequently wastes mainly derived from reprocessing spent fuel from the civil nuclear programme (Magnox and AGR) and those originating from reprocessing foreign fuels.

In the early years, in an atmosphere of trust in technology and pride in being in the vanguard of both military and civil nuclear development, far less attention was paid to waste management. Wastes, liquids, metals, fuels, sludges and debris, uncharacterised and often unrecorded, were literally dumped into poorly constructed ponds and silos and left to stew. These structures include building B29, an open, single-skinned storage pond, and B30 ('Dirty Thirty'), considered by some to be 'the most dangerous industrial building in Europe' but rivalled for the epithet by B38, containing cladding and fuels mixed in with other wastes. These and other legacy ponds and silos have deteriorated over the years, and now 'there is increased urgency to reduce the intolerable risks they pose'.1

The probability of a major radioactivity incident may be very low indeed, but the possibility persists, a fact brought home to me some years ago when standing on a platform above a massive concrete shield below which were highly active liquor (HAL) tanks containing 99% of the radioactivity from spent nuclear fuel. I turned to my colleague, a renowned radiation scientist, and asked him how safe we were. He looked up at the miles of cables and pipes above us, indicating their exposed vulnerability in the event of disruption which could affect the cooling of the liquors below, releasing a massive burst of radioactivity, and commented: 'You could say we are standing on the most dangerous place on earth.' In rather less hyperbolic language the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) considers HAL 'the most significant hazard on the plant' and its containment a priority.2

Safe management of the legacy wastes is by far the most important and challenging function of Sellafield today. The long-term plan is to retrieve, characterise, encapsulate or vitrify the Sellafield inventory in preparation for deep burial in a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). But that prospect is a far-off possibility; the reality is that for the foreseeable future the bulk of Sellafield's wastes will have to be managed at the surface.

A community at the periphery

Sellafield is a physical reality in a social context. Like Hanford in the USA,3 it is a classic example of a peripheral nuclear community, revealing all five characteristics associated with the concept. It is, first, geographically remote, in the sense that it is, in UK terms, relatively far from major population centres, founded on a wartime Royal Ordnance factory, offering safety, security and secrecy for the clandestine operations of the nation's military nuclear project. It is situated in West Cumbria on a plain between the iconic Lake District landscape and the Irish Sea, far from motorways, airports or mainline railways.

Its physical isolation has inspired a second social characteristic, a perception of distinctiveness on the part of West Cumbrians, whom, according to a sociological study in the early 1990s, 'saw their area as 'different' and separate from the rest of society'.4

This peculiar cultural identity, which may be described as a 'nuclear culture', has been attested to in several studies of Sellafield and West Cumbria.5 It is a complex combination of feelings, values and attitudes, pervasive yet contradictory. Within this culture is a sense of resignation, an acceptance of Sellafield as a place of risk and rejection. This inferiority is tempered by a contrary resilience – an assertion of its role as guardian of the nation's dangerous radioactive materials and waste. Overall, there is a sense of realism 'about uncertainties, about lack of power and control... mitigated by positive recognition of the industry's vital role in the area'.4

The third peripheral characteristic is economic, a condition of dominance and dependence. Sellafield is unquestionably the dominant economic activity in West Cumbria, with around 10,000 people directly employed and the local economy substantially dependent on the income and investment in related research and local economic projects that the plant produces. This dominance has some negative effects, notably the deterrent effect of Sellafield's high wages and its monopoly of available skilled labour. This is reflected in the quite stark inequalities of income and evidence of deprivation in some parts of the area, a paradox of poverty in the shadow of a nuclear leviathan.

Nevertheless, the priority given to Sellafield's clean-up pretty well guarantees an annual state investment (through the NDA – the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) approaching £2 billion per year, and it is estimated that Sellafield will absorb around three-quarters (£120 billion) of the total of £164 billion discounted provision for future clean-up liabilities of the nation's nuclear estate over the next 120 years. Sustainable employment is assured for at least 30 years, with slow decline thereafter.

The uneven development of the West Cumbrian economy is reflected in a fourth characteristic: the inequalities of power relations encountered in the region. At one level West Cumbria evinces powerlessness, an industry and an area at the periphery where key decisions affecting wellbeing and welfare are taken outside the region, in corporate headquarters, government ministries, and regulatory bodies. A sense of paranoia is understandable from the recurrent exposures of Sellafield's poor financial management, escalating costs, under-performance, technical failures, accidents and incidents, cover-ups, and organisational deficiencies. But Sellafield seems to hold much of the local community of West Cumbria as some kind of fiefdom, such is its economic, social and political sway over the region. In the context of its national significance and regional importance, Sellafield exercises political leverage that confounds its apparent subordination.

Sellafield draws power from the fifth characteristic of peripheral communities: the fact that the community is living with environmental risk that is unwanted but unavoidable. Rather like Hanford, community and industry have developed a relationship built on a mixture of defensive pride and reluctant recognition of their role and responsibility in bearing a burden on behalf of the nation. Over the years this combination has enabled the community to endure the adversities and respond to the possibilities as it undergoes the vicissitudes of its long transition from production to clean-up.

The long transition

In the frenetic post-war years Sellafield (then Windscale) was almost wholly dedicated to the production of nuclear materials, first for military purposes, later for a range of prototype and experimental facilities. The inevitable accompanying production of waste was of little interest or account. The fundamental function, reprocessing, was initially for plutonium production, using spent fuel from the first reactors.

The scope of reprocessing widened as it became necessary to reprocess Magnox spent fuel, and, later, the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) began operating in 1997 to reprocess spent fuel from the second-generation AGR reactors as well as foreign spent fuel (mainly from Germany and Japan). THORP marked a turning point in the transition from production to clean-up at Sellafield as its function, viability and performance were challenged, and subsequently the plant experienced delays, cost overruns, technical problems and chronic under-performance, leading to failure to meet its domestic and foreign business expectations. The plutonium stockpile grew far beyond its military needs and its use in mixed-oxide fuel (MOX).

The Sellafield MOX plant proved an even more abject failure, opening in 2001 with a capacity of 120 tonnes a year, producing only 5tonnes in its first five years and declared failed and closed down in 2011.

By the end of this decade reprocessing at Sellafield will have finished. Effectively, Sellafield will then have become, like Hanford, almost wholly a waste management and clean-up complex. The transition from nuclear laundry to nuclear dustbin will be complete. Its future was summed up by Adrian Simper, the NDA's Director of Strategy and Technology, during our conversation in 2014:

'There is a hundred years of going forward. A commitment to clean-up and an important mission to carry out. There is no future in reprocessing. Employment is stable and the new priority is clean-up.'

Searching for solutions

Storage of nuclear wastes at Sellafield and at other sites around the country for however long is regarded as an interim solution. The search for a permanent solution to the problem of managing these wastes began in earnest after the Flowers Report pronounced in 1976 that there should be no further commitment to nuclear energy unless it could be demonstrated that long-lived highly radioactive wastes could be safely contained for the indefinite future.6

During the 1980s, efforts to find suitable sites, whether for deep disposal of high-level and long-lived intermediate-level wastes (ILW) or for shallow burial of short-lived ILW and low-level wastes, met with trenchant opposition, both within and between the communities, sufficient to force withdrawal of the proposals. These efforts were focused on finding suitable geology for deep disposal or available locations such as an abandoned mine at Billingham, disused airfields, munitions dumps, or sites in public ownership. They all had in common a classic exercise of 'decide, announce, defend', leading inexorably to abandonment in the face of determined opposition.7

The technical focus of these efforts had signally failed to take into account the social context. A new approach was inaugurated, combining economic and scientific criteria to identify a range of possibly suitable sites, but this time involving the public to assist in developing acceptable proposals. By this means Sellafield emerged as the most favourable site where consultation had found a measure of public support. Despite the effort to combine scientific rigour and public acceptability, the selection had all the hallmarks of a predetermined solution concocted through a closed process of decision-making and relying on Sellafield as the path of least public resistance.

Sellafield the solution, or not?

The selection of Sellafield proved premature, as the case put forward unravelled in the face of opposition at the public inquiry into the proposed underground laboratory known as a Rock Characterisation Facility (RCF). The proposal was rejected in 1997 on three counts: local environmental impacts; scientific uncertainties and technical deficiencies; and the site selection process itself. The rejection was comprehensive and decisive, forcing the government, once again, to rethink and regroup.

The turn of the century was a propitious time for a new approach. Nuclear energy had seemingly run its course in the UK, and the discourse had shifted from conflict over nuclear projects to a mood in which co-operation and consensus was possible. This was invigorated by a surging interest in participative democracy, with its emphasis on openness, transparency, partnership and engagement, backed by a panoply of processes and techniques to facilitate public and stakeholder involvement in policy-making.

Nowhere was the opportunity for dialogue more enthusiastically seized upon than in radioactive waste management. In order to find a way out of the policy impasse a new Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) was established, charged to inspire public confidence by finding the best method for the long-term management of the UK's legacy wastes, the bulk of which were at Sellafield.

In the course of its deliberations (during 2003-06) CoRWM integrated different knowledge streams, including an elaborate multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA) and an extensive public and stakeholder engagement (PSE), as well as drawing on overseas experience and evaluating ethical principles and perspectives. Its main recommendation was carefully crafted: 'Within the present state of knowledge, CoRWM considers geological disposal to be the best available approach for the long-term management of all the material categorised as waste in the CoRWM inventory'8 – i.e. the legacy wastes at Sellafield and elsewhere and future known arisings. But it was carefully qualified by further recommendations emphasising the long-term nature of the process through a programme of interim storage, research and development into geological disposal, flexibility to consider other options, and a staged process of implementation.

CoRWM also set out its proposals for implementation, based on the 'three Ps' – principles of participation, partnership, and packages – to ensure acceptability, facilitate involvement, and provide the resources to encourage commitment.

The government adopted the approach in its White Paper, Managing Radioactive Waste Safely, and was keen to put these theoretical ideas into practice, to turn concepts into a process that would deliver a site for a deep underground repository (called a Geological Disposal Facility). A general invitation was issued to communities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland had adopted storage as its long-term policy) 'to express an interest in opening up without commitment discussions on the possibility of hosting a geological disposal facility at some point in the future'.9

Predictably there was no rush of volunteers but, as might be anticipated, West Cumbria was the first, and only, community to enter into a modulated exercise in participatory democracy managed by the West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely (WCMRWS) Partnership, including councils, the voluntary sector, and business and trade union interests, and working over three years (2009-12).

The WCMRWS process founded on the tide of voluntarism eventually foundered on the rocks of geology. The claim that there were potentially suitable areas for deep disposal within the region was vigorously challenged. Uncertainties over the issue, along with other concerns including the absence of comparative strategies, combined to create a lack of trust, leading the partnership to reach a tentative conclusion: 'at this stage we are fairly confident that an acceptable process can be put in place to assess and mitigate negative impacts and maximise positive impacts'.10

This underwhelming outcome left the decision-makers – the local councils – to reach their own conclusions. The two district councils in pro-nuclear West Cumbria voted to proceed; Cumbria County Council, covering also the wider region further from Sellafield, voted against. The process had stalled in what seemed its most promising location.

Once more into the breach

With this setback the government once more had to regroup and review its policy for geological disposal. There appeared to be three areas where a revised approach was necessary.

First was the fact that site selection had given pre-eminence to voluntarism over geology, giving rise to concerns that a site would be chosen on grounds of what was acceptable to a community rather than what was the best available on scientific grounds. This would be addressed by a process of national geological screening, based on known geological information. While this would not identify specific sites, it would indicate potential geological suitability in areas where interest was likely to be expressed and provide more detailed geological information to those communities who wished to pursue their interest. While voluntarism remained the primary principle of site identification, it would now be within a context of voluntarism and geology.

Second was the question of who should be the decision-making body. Although the WCMRWS Partnership was an exercise in participative democracy to achieve consensus, the formal decision on whether to continue was in the hands of the representative authorities, the county and district councils, who had agreed that a decision should be agreed by both tiers. Thus Cumbria's reluctance to proceed was decisive. To avoid such an override in the future, the government stated that all levels of local government should have a voice in the process and that no one level should prevent the participation of another. The revised process would be managed by the government and led by the state-owned developer, working with communities. The crucial underlying principle was that the final decision-making role would sit with people in communities.

A more subtle approach to the issue of 'what is a community?' and 'who should decide?' was devised whereby communities would be 'identified' over time as the siting process evolved and the options were refined to specific locations. The fact that a repository has a 'physical existence' meant that an emerging community would ultimately need to be identified based on a geographical area. The principle that the 'community' decides would be enacted by a right of withdrawal during the process and by confirmation of the decision to develop the repository in a test of public support. The hope was that this elaborate, extended, even elegant approach to voluntarism in practice, backed by a package of community benefits, would have the flexibility and incentives to attract communities to engage willingly in achieving a site for the disposal of the nation's wastes.

Time to decide

The third area concerned the timescale of decision-making.

The technical and scientific challenges involved in making a safety case for a repository with engineered barriers within a host rock capable of ensuring containment of radionuclides for up to a million years were formidable. The key reason for Cumbria's decision to pause the process was that it would be premature to proceed; that uncertainties suggested the risks were too great, certainly in the Cumbrian geological context.

Another uncertainty was the nature and scale of the inventory ultimately destined for the repository. The CoRWM recommendations had been confined to the legacy wastes – those mainly at Sellafield and those arising from existing and known nuclear programmes. A new nuclear programme of uncertain scale being promoted by government would result in spent fuel and other wastes on the sites of new reactors, creating an indeterminate inventory extending over unknowable timescales. Storage of the nation's legacy wastes already at Sellafield was one thing, permanent disposal, including wastes from new build, was quite another. As Martin Forwood of the protest group CORE (Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment) put it to me: 'It would be ludicrous to move it from Sellafield given the risks of transport. It would be absolutely ridiculous. But Sellafield shouldn't necessarily be taking more.'

There was also resistance to the government's importunity in seeking a decision to move forward, thereby locking West Cumbria more firmly into the process.

And there we have it. The government's view that 'effective arrangements will exist to manage and dispose of the waste that will be produced from new nuclear power stations'11 is speculation at best. The problem is that effective arrangements scarcely yet exist for dealing with the legacy wastes which, for the foreseeable future, will be stored at Sellafield and other sites, let alone wastes from any new build which would have to be stored well into the next century on fragile, crumbling or inundated coastal sites.

Progress towards identifying an acceptable and suitable site for disposal will inevitably take time. The revised arrangements leave West Cumbria in the ring, probably still the favoured location. The new, evolutionary, self-defining approach to site identification is flexible, placing the veto, test of public support and distribution of investment funds in the hands of the community and not the representative political bodies. This opens up the opportunities for voluntarism, and it is highly likely volunteers will come forward from West Cumbria. Conversely, the geological screening process and the emphasis on suitable geology acts as a potential constraint on finding a suitable site in West Cumbria.

The revised process might tempt other communities into the frame, areas where public support and geological conditions are favourable. There may be potential volunteers with the requisite peripheral characteristics, but few will be likely to maintain commitment over the long timescales involved.

The inescapable fact is that the large volumes of wastes at Sellafield will not be in a fit condition for disposal for decades to come. And it would seem impossible, irresponsible even, to contemplate moving three-quarters of the nation's highly active wastes miles across the country, requiring security, transfer, surveillance and logistical arrangements.

The nation's radioactive waste is mainly held at Sellafield and there it must remain, at least until the programme of management and clean-up is concluded. New production facilities such as for MOX or reprocessing are exceedingly improbable, the proposed new reactors at nearby Moorside are doubtful, and although a GDF, if one is ever developed, might yet be located in West Cumbria, Sellafield will for long be caretaker of the nation's wastes.

Where and when the undertaker will come to bury them remains unclear, and may remain so for the foreseeable future.


1. Nuclear Decommissioning Authority: Strategy. Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, April 2016, p.27.

2. Sellafield – High Level Waste Plant – Waste Vitrification Plant – Lines 1 and 2 – Containment System. Office for Nuclear Regulation, Jun. 2014.

3. Hanford in the Pacific North West of the USA was the subject of the second article in this series ('The nuclear frontier'). The characteristics of peripheral communities were discussed in the first article ('Landscapes of the legacy of nuclear power').

4. C. Waterton, B. Wynne and R. Grove-White: Public Perceptions and the Nuclear Industry in West Cumbria – Report to Cumbia County Council. Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, Lancaster University, 1993 (amended version, 2007)

5. Paul Loeb used Nuclear Culture as the title of his book on Hanford (New Society Publishers, 1986). Among the studies of Sellafield and West Cumbria are: C. Waterton, B. Wynne and R. Grove-White: Public Perceptions and the Nuclear Industry in West Cumbria – Report to Cumbia County Council. Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, Lancaster University (see note 4); H. Bolter: Inside Sellafield. Quartet Books, 1996; S. Macgill: The Politics of Anxiety: Sellafield's Cancer-Link Controversy. Pion, 1987; J. McSorley: Living in the Shadow: The Story of the People of Sellafield. Pan Books, 1990; and H. Davies (Ed.): Sellafield Stories: Life in Britain's First Nuclear Plant. Constable & Robinson, 2012.

6. Nuclear Power and the Environment. Cmd. 6618. Sixth Report. Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. HMSO, 1976.

7. For a brief history of early efforts at site selection see A. Blowers: 'A geological disposal facility for nuclear waste – if not Sellafield, then where?'. Town & Country Planning, 2014, Vol. 83, Dec., 545-53

8. Managing our Radioactive Waste Safely. Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, Nov. 2006

9. Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: A Framework for Implementing Geological Disposal. Cm 7386. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. TSO, June 2008.

10. The Final Report of the West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Partnership. West Cumbria Managing Radioactive Waste Partnership, Aug. 2012. p.6.

11. Draft National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-6). Department of Energy and Climate Change, Jul. 2011.

A military bromance: SMRs to support and cross-subsidize the UK nuclear weapons program

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Industry and government in the UK openly promote SMRs on the grounds that an SMR industry would support the nuclear weapons program (in particular the submarine program) by providing a pool of trained nuclear experts, and that in so doing an SMR industry will cross-subsidize the weapons program. Such arguments are problematic for several reasons. Firstly, the weapons program is problematic and the UK's compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations is questionable. Secondly, why subsidize an SMR industry to subsidize the weapons program ‒ why not simply invest more in the weapons program directly? Thirdly, there are strong reasons to firewall civil nuclear programs from military programs yet there is no longer any pretense of a firewall.

The arguments are clearly stated in a 2017 report by Rolls-Royce.1 The company trumpets its role in powering and maintaining the UK Royal Navy submarine fleet. But its recent interest in civil SMRs isn't a case of swords-to-ploughshares … it's ploughshares-supporting-swords. The report states:1

"The indigenous UK supply chain that supports defence nuclear programmes requires significant ongoing support to retain talent and develop and maintain capability between major programmes. Opportunities for the supply chain to invest in new capability are restricted by the limited size and scope of the defence nuclear programme. A UK SMR programme would increase the security, size and scope of opportunities for the UK supply chain significantly, enabling long-term sustainable investment in people, technology and capability.

"Expanding the talent pool from which defence nuclear programmes can draw from would bring a double benefit. First, additional talent means more competition for senior technical and managerial positions, driving excellence and performance. Second, the expansion of a nuclear-capable skilled workforce through a civil nuclear UK SMR programme would relieve the Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability. This would free up valuable resources for other investments."

So SMRs will relieve the Ministry of Defence of the "burden" of paying for its own WMD programs!

Andy Stirling and Phil Johnstone have carefully studied the links between the UK's nuclear power program and the weapons program.2 They wrote in The Guardian in March 2018:3

"Their [National Audit Office] 2008 costing of military nuclear activities states: "One assumption of the future deterrent programme is that the United Kingdom submarine industry will be sustainable and that the costs of supporting it will not fall directly on the future deterrent programme." If the costs of keeping the national nuclear submarine industry in business must fall elsewhere, what could that other budget be? 

"Although unstated, by far the most likely source for such support is a continuing national civil nuclear programme. And this where the burgeoning hype around UK development of SMRs comes in. Leading designs for these reactors are derived directly from submarine propulsion. British nuclear submarine reactor manufacturer Rolls-Royce is their most enthusiastic champion. But, amid intense media choreography, links between SMRs and submarines remain (aside from reports of our own work) barely discussed in the UK press.

"This neglect is odd, because the issues are very clear. Regretting that military programmes are no longer underwritten by civil nuclear research, a heavily redacted 2014 MoD report expresses serious concerns over the continued viability of the UK nuclear submarine industry. And Rolls-Royce itself is clear that success in securing government investment for SMRs would "relieve the Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability" for the UK's military nuclear sector. Other defence sources are also unambiguous that survival of the British nuclear submarine industry depends on continuation of UK civil nuclear power. Many new government initiatives focus intently on realising the military and civil synergies.

"Some nuclear enthusiasts have called this analysis a conspiracy theory, but these links are now becoming visible. In response to our own recent evidence to the UK Public Accounts Committee, a senior civil servant briefly acknowledged the connections. And with US civil nuclear programmes collapsing, the submarine links are also strongly emphasised by a former US energy secretary. Nuclear submarines are evidently crucial to Britain's cherished identity as a "global power". It seems that Whitehall's infatuation with civil nuclear energy is in fact a military romance."


1. Rolls-Royce, 2017, 'UK SMR: A National Endeavour',

2. Andy Stirling and Phil Johnstone, 23 Oct 2018, 'A global picture of industrial interdependencies between civil and military nuclear infrastructures', Nuclear Monitor #868,

3. Andy Stirling and Phil Johnstone, 29 March 2018, 'Why is the UK government so infatuated with nuclear power?', Against a worldwide background

An epitaph for Sellafield's THORP reprocessing plant – 'Never did what it said on the tin'

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment (CORE)

A Sellafield Stakeholder committee was recently told that, by the 11th November, THORP would have chopped up (sheared) its last batch of spent fuel, bringing to an end almost a quarter century of operation – a performance described to stakeholders as 'mission completed successfully'.

As has now become customary for such milestone events, THORP's performance is already being eulogised in a way that can be reconciled neither with the plant's 'mission' as clearly defined by its owner and developer British Nuclear Fuels plc (BNFL) nor indeed with the well documented facts on the ground today.

For right up to its opening in 1994, plans for THORP's operations – its mission – were laid out by BNFL through a range of specific and clearly defined performance targets that included not only how much spent fuel would be reprocessed (and at what rate) over specified timescales and how much profit would be made during the first 10 years of operation (the Baseload).

In more general terms BNFL also aired its aspirations of winning new business for THORP and its ability to operate as a 'recycling' plant. Against these projections, it is only right that the success or failure of THORP's mission is judged on whether, in the event, the plant has done 'what it said on the tin' in terms of meeting those BNFL targets and hopes.

Based on the officially published 'annual throughput' figures (tonnes reprocessed per year) collated by CORE since the plant opened in 1994, THORP has failed to meet those operational targets and schedules by a country mile. Aided and abetted by the periodic failings of associated 'support' facilities such as the High Level Waste Evaporators, THORP's major operational, recycling and potential financial shortcomings, as highlighted below, represent the polar opposite of a 'mission completed successfully'.

'THORP will reprocess 7000 tonnes of fuel in the first 10 years of operation at a rate of 1000 tonnes per year'

Just 5045 tonnes were reprocessed in the first 10 years of operation – the 7000 tonnes only being completed on 4th December 2012 – over nine years late. Not once during the Baseload period (1994-2003) was the throughput rate of 1000 tonnes per year achieved.

'THORP will reprocess 800 tonnes per year during the Post-Baseload period (2004 onwards)'

Whilst the Baseload performance (above) strongly suggested that achieving this rate was highly improbable if not impossible, any chance was finally dashed by THORP's 2005 accident whose irreparable damage slashed the plant's future throughput rate by some 50%. Since its restart in 2007 THORP has averaged 306 tonnes per year. [In 2005, a large leak of a highly radioactive solution was detected ‒ the leak began in July 2004 and went undetected for nine months. British Nuclear Group was convicted for breaches of health and safety regulations and fined £500,000, and the incident was rated Level 3 on the INES scale.]

'Additional business for THORP is expected to be secured from overseas customers'.

No such business was ever secured. Conversely, over 850 tonnes of business was lost when, under a revised Atomic Law, German utilities chose – for economic and environmental reasons – to store their fuel in Germany rather than send it to THORP for reprocessing.

On its opening in 1994, THORP had secured 10,229 tonnes of reprocessing business from the UK, Japan and six European countries. On its closure in 2018 the plant will have reprocessed a total of just 9,300 tonnes 'with all contracts completed'.

'Thorp: a world leading facility for the recycling of used nuclear fuel'

THORP was not designed to recycle spent fuel but to recover materials for subsequent re-use. Of these, the most contentious is plutonium – with a majority of the estimated 56 tonnes recovered by THORP now languishing unused in the Sellafield stockpile, including plutonium 'flag-swapped' to UK ownership by overseas customers who have no use for it.

White elephant

CORE's spokesman Martin Forwood said: "This technically complex 'first of a kind' facility, facing economic and contract doubts from day one, was always going to struggle to meet BNFL targets. It is not surprising that, with its failures, a plant officially dubbed as 'the jewel in Sellafield's crown' should have morphed so quickly into the white elephant expected by many. To assess it as a success would be deceitful in the extreme and represent 'Trumpery' at its most disingenuous."

That THORP was indeed to lose some overseas contracts will have come as no surprise to BNFL whose Director Alan Johnson warned in 1989 (five years before the plant opened) that the global change in attitude to reprocessing posed a very real threat to THORP and that "many of our major customers would love to cancel their contracts" (Channel 4 TV Documentary, 'Inside Sellafield').

Those customers, some of whom had already cancelled contracts in 1995 (and were to cancel more later), vented their frustrations on THORP at a meeting with BNFL in 2000 when they stated that 'your customers are losing confidence in BNFL's technical ability. This loss of confidence was enhanced by BNFL's apparent inability to reprocess our fuel within the agreed baseload period'. (Minutes of meeting held at Heathrow on 18th September 2000.).

The loss of major overseas business (at least 850 tonnes worth) will have impacted on THORP's financial viability. BNFL's claim of a £500 million profit being earned over the first 10-year Baseload period was based on a forecast income of £6 billion and (with decommissioning costs accounted for) operational costs of £5.5 billion. The latter have inevitably escalated as a result of the numerous accidents, equipment failures, unplanned events and unscheduled outages suffered by THORP during those first 10 years.

Under certain contracts, many such costs could not be foisted upon customers. In addition, the plant's decommissioning cost – put by BNFL in 1990 at an 'undiscounted' £700 million – has ballooned today to an 'undiscounted' £3.7 billion (NDA FoI response to CORE, 29 Oct 2018), thus raising further major doubts about THORP's profitability.

Such financial doubts are not new and were raised in the early days of THORP's operation by ex-BNFL Director Harold Bolter who, having played a major role in THORP's development and opening, was later to express the views that: "A business that once looked a sure-fire winner is beginning to look increasingly vulnerable … BNFL's figures underpinning the plant's economic case have turned out to be incorrect in several important respects … if the highly complex plant fails to operate to its projected standard, it will become a huge financial drain on the nation." [Harold Bolter 'Inside Sellafield' published 1996].

Accounts unpublished

That 'the highly complex plant failed to operate to its projected standard' as set by BNFL is beyond doubt. The full impact of these failures on THORP's profitability will however only be determined by the publication of a final 'set of accounts' for the plant. To date, no such figures have been published since the plant opened in 1994 – as confirmed by a Government response to a parliamentary question in 2005 that 'BNFL has never separated the accounts for the THORP plant from other areas'.

Conveniently for those determined to continue to overstate THORP's viability, the final account is going to be a long time in coming for, in its FoI response to CORE, the NDA confirms that it "does not intend to make the financial information available at this time and have no plans for future publication. Ongoing commercial contracts make this information commercially sensitive". In other words, the world and his dog must wait perhaps until the 2070s when, for example, the contracted long-term storage of some 5000 tonnes of UK's AGR fuel is expected to end with its final disposal – or the last kilogram of plutonium is finally put out of harm's way for good.

CORE's Martin Forwood added: "That THORP's finances continue to be withheld from public scrutiny – despite its reprocessing days now being over – will suggest to many that, as well as failing to meet operational targets, the plant is already staring a negative financial outcome in the face. While ardent supporters will always find positives for THORP, its abject failure to meet BNFL's mission objectives cannot be one of them. We wait with interest to see the extent of verbal gymnastics employed by Government, NDA, Sellafield Ltd and others to divert attention from the commercial failures of what was once referred to by the industry as a flagship reprocessing plant."

Reprinted from Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment website, 12 Nov 2018,

UK nuclear renaissance splutters while renewables boom

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

UK nuclear generation is down by more than a quarter since a 1998 peak; since then, four gigawatts of nuclear capacity has shut down. Most of the 15 operational reactors are ageing and all of them are expected to close by 2035, with only Sizewell B lasting beyond 2030. It seems increasingly unlikely that new build will match retirements.

In early 2018, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) downwardly revised its nuclear power projection, from 17 GW to 14 GW in 2035, compared to current capacity of 8.9 GW. Renewable capacity is projected to reach 68 GW by 2035.1 Other BEIS projections have fallen further; for example in 2014 BEIS anticipated 67 terawatt-hours (TWh) of nuclear generation by 2024, almost double the more recent estimate of 34 TWh in 2024.2

The UK Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) said in the aftermath of Toshiba's November 8 announcement that it plans to liquidate the NuGen subsidiary that was planning reactors at Moorside:3

"While the nuclear industry has lamented the energy and jobs potential it has consistently advocated would come from such developments, it is becoming increasingly clear that the large costs of new nuclear, their sheer complexity and the large subsidies in dealing with the current waste legacy makes such large investments required for them increasingly difficult to achieve. In contrast, increasing evidence shows the costs of renewable energy, energy efficiency, energy storage and suchlike is coming down year on year. Such projects are also much quicker to realise and do not have the safety and radioactive waste issues to resolve that makes new nuclear so complicated and expensive."

The NFLA endorsed an editorial in the Financial Times. An indicator of changing views towards nuclear power, the Financial Times said:4

"The cost of replacing old nuclear plants with new ones has steadily risen while technological advances have made the opposite true of wind and solar power. There could still be a case for nuclear power in a complementary mix of supplies that ensure both energy stability and emissions reductions. But that case may weaken to the point of obsolescence by the time five remaining nuclear projects – at various stages of planning – are due to be built.

"The state is not in a position to invest across the board. The borrowing required would run into tens of billions of pounds. Rather than approaching this quandary piecemeal, the government should commission a fresh strategic review. The last one took place in 2013 when the energy landscape looked very different. To keep its place in national ambitions, nuclear power needs to come in at a lower cost and to attract investment. It should not require subsidies unavailable to rivals."

A Business Leader (editorial) in The Guardian said:5

"Toshiba's decision to pull out of building a nuclear power station in Cumbria last week will cause shockwaves far beyond the north-west of England. ... Ditching new nuclear would require a huge increase in the amount of wind and solar power already expected in coming years. It would need dramatic progress on energy storage, smarter grids and even more efficient use of energy. All those things will be difficult. But pursuing an impossible atomic dream, as Moorside demonstrates, looks even harder."

National Infrastructure Commission

In a 163-page infrastructure assessment released in July, the government's National Infrastructure Commission argued that the government should take a slower, step-by-step approach to nuclear build and that the government should not agree to support more than one nuclear power station beyond Hinkley Point C before 2025.6 Sir John Armitt, chair of the Commission, said there is no need to rush with nuclear because "during the next 10 years we should get a lot more certainty about just how far we can rely on renewables."7

Armitt said: "One thing we've all learnt is these big nuclear programmes can be pretty challenging, quite risky – they will be to some degree on the government's balance sheet. I don't think anybody's pretending you can take forward a new nuclear power station without some form of government underwriting or support. Whereas the amount required to subsidise renewables is continually coming down. We've seen how long it took to negotiate Hinkley – does the government really want to have to keep going through those sort of negotiations?"8

Richard Lowe from AECOM Infrastructure & Environment UK said in response to the National Infrastructure Commission report: "This sort of message would have a lot of shockwaves. You would have to presume that [the planned] schemes would be affected. It's going to cause Korean and Chinese investors to have a long hard look at whether they still make that investment".9 Likewise, Tim Yeo said: "If this is taken on by government, it's a serious blow. You're not going to get people to invest in their supply chains on the basis of only one nuclear plant coming forward."9

The Commission estimated that an electricity system powered mainly by renewables would cost no more than relying on new nuclear power plants; indeed it estimates slightly lower average costs for a scenario with 90% renewable and less than 10% nuclear compared to a scenario with 40% renewables and around 40% nuclear. The Commission said the economic analysis factored in the cost of balancing intermittent renewables through storage, smart grids and interconnectors.

The Commission's report states that renewables have been undergoing a "quiet revolution" and there "is ample scope to build on this success in years to come." It says that by 2030 a minimum of 50% of power should come from renewables, up from about 30% today. The Guardian reported in July that renewables have already overtaken nuclear for electricity generation; wind, solar and biomass power stations out-produced nuclear in the previous three quarters with renewables supplying 28.1% of power in the April‒June quarter compared to nuclear's 22.5%.8

Armitt said: "When it comes to energy, then we see a future of renewables. ... I think where I have been accused of a change of mind is on nuclear. Where, in the past, I've been a strong supporter of nuclear, this work that we have done in the national infrastructure assessment – and the evidence base that we have got for it – I think that we are in a different world today. We don't have to be as dependent on a nuclear solution as maybe we thought we needed to be 10 years ago."10

More bluntly, the Guardian's financial editor Nils Pratley said: "The government, when it gets back to governing, needs to respond. Its mania for new nuclear plants has looked out-of-date, wrong-headed and unnecessarily expensive for ages. Now even its own infrastructure adviser agrees. A U-turn is required."7

Committee on Climate Change

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) ‒ an independent, statutory body established under the Climate Change Act 2008 ‒ notes in a June 2018 report that apart from Hinkley, "limited progress" has been made with new nuclear projects whereas renewable power generation has increased four-fold.11

The CCC report states that the share of electricity generated from low-carbon sources has increased from 20% in 2008 to 52% in 2017, driven by a quadrupling of renewable generation between 2008 and 2017, from 21 TWh to 91 TWh. Generation from nuclear power remained fairly constant over that period at around 60-65 TWh per year. Total electricity consumption has decreased by around 13% since 2008, the report states, despite a 5% increase in the total number of UK households.

In a section on the "limited progress in new nuclear", the CCC report states:

"The aim is for the Hinkley Point C plant to commission in 2025, but limited progress has been made with other new nuclear projects, aside from the recent announcements around the Wylfa nuclear plant. Site development and regulatory approval milestones have been passed, though formal negotiations have only just begun with one developer, raising questions over the likelihood of several new nuclear plants commissioning before 2030, beyond the Hinkley Point C project.

"One additional nuclear power plant beyond the Hinkley Point C project by 2030 is considered in two scenarios. If new nuclear projects were not to come forward, it is likely that renewables would be able to be deployed on shorter timescales and at lower cost

"The Government must put in place a progress monitoring framework that allows for risks to delivery of low-carbon projects to be identified ahead of time. In addition, contingency plans for the delay or under-delivery of projects, such as new nuclear or imported electricity, must also be developed. These plans should allow for alternative low-carbon generation to be contracted in time to replace any under-delivery without increasing carbon emissions."

Nuclear doom and gloom

Another indication of the gloom settling over the UK nuclear industry came from Alistair Smith, formerly nuclear development director at contractor Costain. He said in mid-2018 that most contractors have already lost faith. "Aside from those involved in Hinkley, contractors have lost interest and have moved on to more exciting things. Everyone's been burnt so many times that it would take a lot to convince a chief executive to go for another project again."12

EDF Energy ‒ majority owner of the UK's nuclear power stations ‒ is considering selling part of its 80% stake in operating UK nuclear power plants while retaining majority ownership. Centrica plans to sell its 20% stake by 2020.13 And therein lies one of the problems with the UK nuclear power industry: more insiders want out than outsiders want in.

Meanwhile, the Hinkley construction project moves ahead, £2.2bn over budget and a year behind schedule.14 In November 2017, the UK Parliament's Public Accounts Committee said Hinkley Point amounts to a "bad hand" and "the poorest consumers will be hit hardest"15 while the UK National Audit Office said Hinkley Point is "a risky and expensive project with uncertain strategic and economic benefits."16

Emeritus Professor Steve Thomas told a Parliamentary forum in September 2017: "A recent study estimated that Hinkley would be the most expensive 'object' built on earth. Yet it would use the EPR, a technology unproven in operation and which has run into appalling problems of cost and time overruns in the 3 projects using it. EPR would be supplied by Areva NP, which is in financial collapse and might not be saveable and has been found to be falsifying quality control records for safety critical items of equipment for up to 50 years."17

Current nuclear new build proposals:





Hinkley Point C

2 x 1,600MW


EDF 67%, CGN 33%


Approx. 3,000 MW



Wylfa Newydd

2 x 1,350 MW


Horizon Nuclear

Sizewell C

2 x 1,600 MW


EDF 80%, CGN 20%


2 x 1,350 MW


Horizon Nuclear


2 (?) x 1,150 MW

Hualong One

CGN 66.5%, EDF


1. Richard Black / ECIU, 5 Jan 2018, 'Nuclear: Time for open competition',

2. Simon Evans, 22 March 2017, 'Analysis: Dramatic shift in UK government outlook for gas and clean energy',

3. Nuclear Free Local Authorities, 15 Nov 2018, 'As the Moorside project collapses, NFLA advocate the future is renewable and decentralised energy as Councils pledge zero-carbon by the 2030s',

4. Financial Times, 13 Nov 2018, 'Editorial: The UK must reassess its long-term energy plans',

5. The Guardian, 11 Nov 2018, 'Moorside's atomic dream was an illusion. Renewables are the future',

6. National Infrastructure Commission, July 2018, 'National Infrastructure Assessment',

7. Nils Pratley, 10 July 2018, 'Government needs U-turn over mania for nuclear plants',

8. Adam Vaughan, 10 July 2018, 'Cool down nuclear plan because renewables are better bet, ministers told',

9. nuclear News, July/Aug 2018, No.109,

10. Carbon Brief, 13 Nov 2018,

11. Committee on Climate Change, June 2018, 'Reducing UK emissions: 2018 Progress Report to Parliament',

12. 29 July 2018, 'Is the nuclear tide turning?',

13. Reuters, 11 July 2018, 'EDF considering options over its 80 percent stake in UK nuclear plants',

14. Adam Vaughan, 3 July 2017, 'Hinkley Point C is £2.2bn over budget and a year behind schedule, EDF admits',

15. World Nuclear Association, 23 Nov 2017, 'British MPs question value of Hinkley Point project',

16. Gerard Wynn, 29 Nov 2017, 'IEEFA Update: More Questions on U.K. Nuclear Project',

17. Pete Roche and Rachel Western, Nov 2018, 'Lessons for Hinkley from Sellafield',

UK: Dodgy Decommissioning Deals

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Pete Roche ‒ energy consultant and editor of NuClear News

As NuClear News reported in April, the UK Government was forced to pay out £97 million in a settlement with two US companies – Energy Solutions and Bechtel ‒ for mishandling the way it awarded the £6.1 billion Magnox nuclear decommissioning contract.1

The BBC's 'File on Four' has been delving in to some of the details of the contract, and what they have discovered suggests what went on was more than just "dramatic levels of incompetence", as the Labour Party called it, but was, in fact, a deliberate attempt to manipulate the outcome of the tender process.2

In 2012, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) put the second stage of the decommissioning process for the ten Magnox sites and two research reactor sites at Harwell and Winfrith out to tender. Up for grabs was a 14-year contract to take these sites to an Interim End State. The contract was expected to be worth £6-7 billion. Energy Solutions – the company which did the early decommissioning work at these sites – bid for the contract along with Bechtel. About £20 million was spent on putting the bid together with a team of up to 100 people working on it. The final bid included 750 pages of text; a cost estimate of up to 2,000 pages and 11,000 pages of supporting documents.

The bid was scored according to around 700 criteria. In the end the contract went to the Cavendish Fluor Partnership (CFP). But in September 2017, the NDA formally gave CFP two year's notice that the contract would end nine years early. It blamed a significant mismatch between the work outlined in the tender and what actually needed doing. BBC reporter Jane Deith continued: "But more serious than that – the NDA rigged the tender. It was only caught because Energy Solutions smelled a rat and took them to Court."

Ian Bowes, who was working for Energy Solutions until March 2016, told the BBC that the company identified a series of areas that technically they believed the NDA had got wrong in their evaluation. They also looked at the scoring of CFP and it seemed that Energy Solutions were not getting equal treatment. Documents from the NDA tracked how the scoring had been carried out. Someone had gone back into the computer and changed the scores initially awarded to the Energy Solutions bid.

A High Court Judge agreed with Energy Solutions. He said 22 of the scores awarded to Energy Solutions were wrong. Had the right scores been awarded the results of the competition would have been reversed. CFP should have been disqualified according to the technical criteria, and the NDA knew that. In the words of the Judge – Justice Peter Fraser – the NDA fudged it in order to keep CFP in the competition: "By the word fudging I mean choosing an outcome and then manipulating the evaluation to reach that outcome."

And, he said the NDA limited any permanent record of what it was up to, at one stage telling the evaluators to shred their notes. The NDA had acted unlawfully. It was forced to pay Energy Solutions and Bechtel £97 million. Adding other costs such as the £8.5 million cost of fighting the case in court, the total cost to the taxpayer is £122 million according to the National Audit Office.

The BBC asked the NDA why it manipulated the tender process. Was it because it was under pressure to select the cheapest bidder? If not, what was the reason? But it didn't get an answer.

Chief Executive David Peatie, who arrived after the Magnox mess, apologised for past mistakes and said procedures have now changed.

Business Secretary Greg Clark has ordered an independent inquiry. Steve Holliday, former boss of the National Grid, is interviewing witnesses and will report next year. But the fallout could be huge because Ministers gave the whole Magnox contract approval. The NDA says the Government should take some share of the blame. Emeritus Professor of Energy Policy, Steve Thomas, says he thinks the NDA feels resentful that the Department of Energy (now the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy – BEIS) has loaded the blame onto them rather than taking some responsibility themselves because the contract was approved by the Treasury and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but only if it achieved savings of at least 10%. The bidding process and the overly complicated criteria were things they should have looked at.

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee will look at this at the end of November 2017. Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, says the fiasco rings many alarm bells about how it could have happened with so many people in the NDA and Government looking into this contract. The Government says it monitors the NDA more closely now. The 10% saving target was meant to secure value for money and the right level of commercial expertise. In 2015, the Government cancelled a contract to clean up Sellafield saying it was too complicated for a private sector contract. It took back control of Sellafield and may do the same with the Magnox sites.

Cavendish is also decommissioning Dounreay as part of a consortium. It won the £1.5 billion contract in 2012, beating a bid by Energy Solutions and Amec. The BBC revealed that Energy Solutions believes that, just like with the Magnox contract, the scores for the Dounreay bid were "fudged". Energy Solutions didn't go to Court at the time because it didn't want to upset the NDA and ruin its chances of winning the Magnox contract.

People in the NDA confirmed to Energy Solutions that scores had been changed for the purpose of ensuring that it did not win the contract. The Magnox inquiry has spoken to witnesses about the Dounreay contract tendering process. If the inquiry seriously criticises the Dounreay contract, it would mean the NDA had mishandled three multi-billion contracts. The NDA didn't respond to allegations that scores for the Dounreay contract had been manipulated.

The NDA hasn't decided what to do about the Magnox contract, but the fiasco raises serious questions about the NDA's capability to handle the complex and dangerous job of safely taking apart ageing nuclear reactors. Steve Thomas says if the contract is to come back in house, the NDA would clearly need a major shake-up. One of the serious issues about long delays to decommissioning is that there are lots of things that can go seriously wrong. What's clear is that our atomic past will still be part of tomorrow's world.


1. 'Decommissioning makes every other disaster in the post-war period pale into insignificance', NuClear News, No.94, April 2017,

2. BBC File on 4, The Nuclear Option ‒ Powering the Future and Cleaning Up the Past, 31st October 2017,

Reprinted from NuClear News, No.101, Nov. 2017,

EPR fiasco unravelling in France and the UK

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green − Nuclear Monitor editor

French utility EDF has once again pushed back the estimated start-up date and upped the cost estimate of the European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) under construction at Flamanville, France. There was no attempt to sugar-coat the fiasco by the World Nuclear Association, which noted that the estimated cost has more than tripled − from €3.3 billion (US$3.7b) to €10.5 billion (US$11.8b) − and the estimated six-year construction timeline has nearly doubled to 11 years.1

Concerns were revealed earlier this year about the structural integrity of pressure vessels in EPRs under construction in France and China. WISE-Paris has released a briefing on the problems.2 Drawing on information from the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) and its technical support organisation, the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), WISE-Paris states:

"Available analysis released by the French nuclear safety authorities confirms the serious and exceptional nature of the defect found on the head and bottom of the reactor pressure vessel (RPV) of the EPR reactor at Flamanville, in France, and most probably those of Taishan 1 and 2 in China. All three units are under construction.

This defect consists in a "major positive segregation", which describes an area where the carbon concentration is found to be higher than the limit expected and requested under technical specifications in the steel that was used for fabrication. The excess in carbon reaches up to 50% higher levels than expected in the affected area, which covers more than one meter in diameter and spreads through more than half of the head thickness. This appears to be much higher in scope than any other known segregation on similar components within the French operating nuclear fleet.

The mechanical properties will be affected in the segregated area, which could therefore jeopardize the possibility to exclude with certainty the risk of RPV rupture in some operational conditions. This certainty is one of the fundamentals of the reactor's safety assessment.

The presence of the segregated zone results from the choice that Areva made regarding the forging process of the concerned components by its daughter company Creusot Forges. The analysis shows that another process, which has been used by Japan Steel Works (JSW) to forge similar components for the EPR reactor under construction in Finland, would most likely have allowed to avoid such segregations. In the case of the bottom, which is a little less thick than the head, it also appears that yet another process (directed solidification ingot), which is used by Creusot Forges for other pieces, could have been used to avoid the problem.

According to the analysis of the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) and its technical support organisation, the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), Areva therefore chose, contrary to regulatory guidelines, a fabrication process which had not received technical qualification beforehand and which did not use the best available technology. ASN says that it warned Areva on various occasions against the industrial risk that it took when proceeding with fabrication despite those concerns. Moreover, according to the same analysis, Areva's technical assessment of the risk and characterization of a segregated zone forming in the pieces was wrong.

While there is no indication of any dissimulation at this stage, the reasons why the parts could be forged in 2006-2007, welded with other components of the RPV, and why this RPV could be received by the operator EDF, installed in the reactor building and welded with other components of the primary circuit in 2014, without any stop-point of any sort, remain to be understood. ...The programme of studies and tests that Areva proposed is expected to deliver its results in the first half of 2016, allowing for the Advisory Group to discuss them by mid-2016 at the earliest. ASN could therefore not make its final decision about the acceptability of the RPV before the second half of 2016, even if the study and testing results were conclusive."

If remedial action is required, it could be extremely expensive and time-consuming. The pressure vessel problems could kill the Flamanville project and destroy Areva's already bleak chances of securing further overseas orders for EPRs.


Pierre-Franck Chevet, head of ASN, said the two EPRs planned for Hinkley Point in the UK could be affected as pressure vessels for those reactors have already been manufactured using the same techniques.3

Delays with the Flamanville EPR − arising from the pressure vessel fiasco, or any of the other fiascos that have plagued the project, or any fiascos that have yet to emerge − could directly impact the planned EPRs at Hinkley Point. The European Commission's conditional support4 for the extraordinary subsidies on offer from the UK government to get the project moving are subject to a legal challenge launched by Austria and others. Moreover, the EC ruling was conditional, and one of the conditions is that if the Flamanville reactor is not operational by the end of 2020, the UK government's financial guarantees become invalid. The complexities of the arrangement were recently explained by Oliver Tickell in The Ecologist.5 The EC noted that its conditions were intended to ensure that shareholders and not the guarantor (British taxpayers) "retain the principal exposure to the viability of the EPR technology until such time as there is objective evidence for confidence through the success of precedent projects such as Flamanville 3 and Taishan 1."

The UK government is still trying to rescue the Hinkley Point project despite a growing chorus of criticism. British utilities pulled out of the project long ago. The capacity of French utilities EDF and Areva to fund the project is constrained by Areva's massive debts (and a restructure which will likely see EDF take on some of Areva's risks and liabilities).

The two Chinese utilities with a stake in the project − China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN) − seem to be reluctant to increase their stake in the project. The Chinese are playing hard-ball: their asks include options for Chinese involvement in planned reactors at other sites in the UK (Bradwell and Sizewell are the two sites mentioned in media reports), and some sort of agreement for the UK to consider licensing Chinese reactor technology in the UK (e.g. the Hualong One design6).

The Guardian newspaper opined: "In short, the Chinese have [UK Chancellor George] Osborne over a barrel. One wonders what other incentives have been offered to avoid a humiliating U-turn on Hinkley. The final deal, assuming it is agreed, should be published in full: and parliament should comb every line."7

EDF hopes to sign an agreement with the Chinese utilities while Chinese President Xi Jinping is in the UK from October 20−23. But if any agreement is signed, much of the detail will be missing and it would not amount to a formal, binding agreement to proceed.8

A chorus of criticism

The Hinkley EPR project is now under sustained attack − and not just from the traditional anti-nuclear voices.9,10 The project is opposed by British Establishment figures such as Lord Turnbull (former head of the UK civil service), Lord Lawson (former Chancellor), Lord Howell (former Energy Secretary), and London Mayor Boris Johnson. It is also opposed by most of the mainstream and conservative UK newspapers.

Increasingly, nuclear power advocates are voicing outright opposition. Lady Barbara Judge, former chair of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, said the project is too expensive and uses unreliable technology.11 Vocal nuclear advocates George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and Chris Goodall say that the Hinkley project is an overpriced white elephant and should be abandoned in favour of "other low carbon technologies, both renewable and nuclear."12

Bipartisan support for Hinkley may soon be a thing of the past. The Opposition Labour Party's new Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Lisa Nandy, wrote to the Public Accounts Committee in late September calling for an investigation into the Hinkley project. Nandy said: "I have serious concerns about the value for money this deal provides for bill payers, the likely impact of such a deal on the most vulnerable in society, and have serious questions about the bid process itself."13

Two credit ratings agencies have warned EDF and its Chinese partners that they face rating downgrades if they press ahead with Hinkley Point. Moody's said the project would have a "credit negative effect" because of the risk of large cost overruns and delays. Standard & Poor's warned of the impact on EDF's balance sheet of the Hinkley project.14


1. World Nuclear News, 3 Sept 2015, 'Flamanville EPR timetable and costs revised',

2. WISE Paris Briefing, 1 Oct 2015, 'EPR Flamanville 3: Justification Case of the Pressure Vessel',

See also the EnerWebWatch website which has numerous documents regarding flaws with EPR pressure vessels:

3. John Lichfield, 18 April 2015, 'UK nuclear strategy faces meltdown as faults are found in identical French project',


5. Oliver Tickell, 2 Oct 2015, 'Flamanville nuclear safety fail sounds death knell for Hinkley C',


7. 27 Sept 2015, 'Hinkley Point: what price avoiding humiliation?',

8. Reuters, 2 Oct 2015, 'China president's UK visit is chance for EDF to clinch Hinkley Point deal',

9. nuClear news No.78, October 2015, 'The Hinkley Saga is a National Embarrassment',

10. Ian Fairlie, 21 Sept 2015, '30 Media Comments Opposing Hinkley C',

11. Infrastructure Intelligence, 25 Sept 2015,

12. George Monbiot, Mark Lynas, and Chris Goodall, 19 Sept 2015, 'We are pro-nuclear, but Hinkley C must be scrapped',

13. Lisa Nandy, 28 Sept 2015, 'We need an investigation into Osborne's plans for nuclear power stations',

14. Robin Pagnamenta, 3 Oct 2015, 'EDF faces threat of credit downgrade over Hinkley Point'

Hinkley Point-B2


Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 15, 2006) At Carlisle Crown Court, British Nuclear Group (BNG) was fined £500,000 (currently about 575.000 Euro) for the accident in April last year at Sellafield's THORP. The accident was classified at Level 3 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the worst recorded accident at Sellafield for many years.

(650.5775) Laka Foundation - BNG, who operate Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) under contract to site owners the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), had pleaded guilty in an initial hearing at Whitehaven Magistrates Court earlier this year to three charges brought by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). The charges, under the Nuclear Installations Act 1965, related to breaches of Sellafield site licence conditions, and were summarized by HSE as (i) failing to make and comply with written instructions, (ii) failing to ensure that safety systems are in good working order and (iii) failing to ensure that radioactive material is contained and, if leaks occur, that they are detected and reported.

In fining BNG, Judge Openshaw told the Court that as BNG had pleaded guilty to the offences, he was reducing what he considered to be an appropriate level of fine of £750,000 to £500,000. In reminding the Court of the 'cumulative failures' and the 'worker culture of tolerating alarms' that had lead to the accident, he added that BNG's failure to detect the leak 'probably within days' rather than 8 months was a serious failure worthy of condemnation.

The accident, reported to the HSE's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) on April 20, 2005, entailed the undetected spillage of 83,000 litres of highly radioactive dissolved nuclear fuel and nitric acid over an estimated 8 month period from fractured pipework in the plant's Feed Clarification Cell. The plant was closed immediately and has remained shut down since then. During the closure, which has seen 18 months of reprocessing business put on hold, 2 improvement notices and 49 recommendations have been served on BNG by the NII along with a further 18 recommendations imposed by BNG following its own Board of Investigation into the accident..

At the time of the accident, (THORP's 11th year), the plant was running almost 3 years behind schedule, with just 5729 tonnes of spent fuel reprocessed from a total of 7000 tonnes originally scheduled for completion in the first 10 years of operation (the baseload). The outstanding fuel includes over 700 tonnes of foreign fuel, with the remainder being UK fuel from British Energy's (BE) Advanced Gas Cooled reactor stations. If and when these 'baseload' contracts are completed, a further volume of fuel (post-baseload), largely from BE, is also contracted for reprocessing at THORP.

Restart of the plant, already re-scheduled a number of times, is now set for early 2007, providing all required recommendations have been 'closed out' to the satisfaction of the NII and with the agreement of the NDA. THORP's future however currently remains under close review by the NDA and by the Government who will make the final decision as to whether further reprocessing at the plant can be justified.

The costs of the accident, not yet fully quantified, have been put variously between £50M and hundreds of £M. Modifications (rather than repairs) to THORP's damaged Cell, now completed, will allow an eventual re-start of the plant by by-passing the damaged equipment and pipework. As a result of the modified system, THORP's future throughput rate is expected to be limited to well below the plant's design specification.
Martin Forwood added: "We have major concerns about the restart of THORP given that the systems and pipework that will be used share exactly the same history as that which failed so comprehensively during the accident from metal fatigue and other stresses. As the plant can never again operate as originally designed, there are no good grounds for resuscitating this White Elelephant. We will continue to call for its immediate closure".

More Sellafield News:
Reprocessing at the Sellafield complex has been halted completely early December as a safety precaution following discovery that radioactivity has been leaking into an evaporator's cooling water. This means Magnox reprocessing will not be able to restart until the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate gives the all-clear, which is not expected before January.
Meanwhile, British Nuclear Group has signed a new MOX fuel supply contract with German utility EnBW kernkraft, for the supply and transport of MOX fuel to the Neckarwestheim 2 reactor. It also requires EnBW to commit to convert all the plutonium arising from their reprocessing contract at Sellafield into MOX. But this presumably means BNG has to get the Sellafield MOX-plant and THORP working properly.

Sources: CORE Press Release, 16 October 2006 / Whitehaven News, 8 December 2006 / Renew, the NATTA newsletter # 164, Nov/Dec 2006
Contact: CORE, 98 Church Street, Barrow In Furness, Cumbria LA14 2HT, U.K.
Tel: +44 (0)1229 833851; Fax: +44 (0)1229 812239