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Thursday, 28 August 2014

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Sellafield nuclear plant set to become Europe’s biggest building site

The scale of work to create new storage facilities for nuclear waste means Sellafield is likely to become Europe’s biggest construction site over the next decade.

Sellafield pond photo
One of Sellafield’s open-air ponds

Much of the waste now being kept at the Sellafield site is in outdated storage facilities.

The shocking scale of the nuclear legacy has been revealed as bosses at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) defended their record for overseeing the clean-up of the site.

The issue hit the headlines yesterday as the House of Commons spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee, revealed that the projected cost of decommissioning Sellafield is now £67.5bn – more than the Government’s annual spending on education.

Last week, Cumbria County Council rejected a plea to continue investigating west Cumbria as a possible site for an underground dump.

The spiralling costs of decommissioning Sellafield and the huge scale of the nuclear waste problem – built up over the last 50 years – can only add to the pressure facing ministers as they try to find a long-term solution.

Official figures supplied by the NDA confirm that there are now 68,000 cubic metres of high and intermediate-level radioactive waste stored on the Sellafield site.

A recent National Audit Office (NAO) Report confirmed that around 240 of Sellafield’s 1,400 buildings are classed as nuclear facilities and fewer than 60 of these have so far been decommissioned.

The highest radiation risks, says the report, are posed by two ponds and two silos, built during the 1950s and 60s, which store fuel from early reprocessing operations and radioactive waste.

The huge open air ponds contain various kinds of waste, including radioactive sludge, and skips full of irradiated nuclear fuel. The silos contain fuel rod cladding, and reprocessing waste. Work is underway to start retrieving the waste over the next three to four years.

NDA officials defended their record on cleaning up the site. Chief executive John Clarke said the scale of work to create storage facilities for the waste meant that it would become Europe’s biggest construction site over the next decade.

The decommissioning task had proved immensely complex, and there was still no full inventory of the waste stored in the two silos and ponds.

Asked about the criticism that Sellafield’s parent company was paid £54m in fees last year despite only two out of 14 projects being on track, a spokesman said: “The NAO looked only at the major projects happening around the legacy ponds and silos.

“These are the site’s highest hazard areas and that’s why they are our priority.

“But the report wasn’t looking at other work which has happened at sites such as Winscales and Calder Hall. Nuclear Management Partners [the American-led consortium that manages Sellafield Limited] are only paid if they create efficiencies and do the job they are asked to do.”

The NDA’s “lifetime plan” for Sellafield reveals that the projected cost of decommissioning the whole site has risen from £47bn in March 2009 to the current estimate of £67.5bn, and the figure is expected continue rising. UK Government spending on education in the UK last year stood at £56.27bn, while the spend on defence was £37.25bn – both well below the Sellafield clean-up cost.

Copeland MP Jamie Reed said: “It’s an issue of national urgency. The longer we leave this material without a proper long-term solution the more expensive it’s going to be.”

Scottish Gas owner Centrica has abandoned plans to build new nuclear power stations in the UK with Electricite de France, raising serious doubts over the programme.

Centrica follows Perth-based SSE and Germany's RWE and E.ON in withdrawing from new-build nuclear, although ScottishPower owner Iberdrola is evaluating plans for a power plant in Cumbria.

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