UK Markets closed

UK taxpayers face £132bn nuclear clean-up bill after decades of 'poor records'

Suban Abdulla
·4-min read
Aerial survey of a nuclear power plant under construction. Installation and construction of a power plant. Nuclear power.
There are eight operating nuclear power plants in the UK, with all but one due to retire in the next decade. Photo: Getty

Britain’s spending watchdog has said that decades of “poor record keeping” on nuclear sites and a “perpetual lack of knowledge” has left UK taxpayers to foot a £132bn ($176bn) clean-up bill.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) blamed ignorance, incompetence and weak government oversight for the “astronomical sums.”

More than a century’s work is needed to decommission the civil nuclear sites, it will take 120 years, it said.

PAC chair, Meg Hillier, said: “The UK went from leading the world in establishing nuclear power to this sorry saga of a perpetual lack of knowledge about the current state of the UK’s nuclear sites.”

PAC’s official report says that poor record-keeping about the state and location of materials mean the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) knows too little about the UK’s 17 sites, including the 10 former Magnox power stations it looks after.

It said NDA — the state body responsible for shutting down nuclear facilities such as Sellafield — “still does not have full understanding of the condition of the 17 sites across its estate.”

The NDA acknowledges that it still does not have full understanding of the condition of its sites, including 10 closed Magnox stations from Dungeness in Kent to Hunterston in Ayrshire, the committee of MPs said.

MPs recommended that the NDA speed up its work to reduce the time it will take to fully decommission the sites. “It may be possible to reduce the time it will take to fully decommission the sites from around 85 years to more like 40-45 years. This could significantly reduce the long-term cost.”

Additionally, the committee said that taxpayers’ money could be saved by speeding up the programme to create a geological disposal facility to permanently store highly radioactive waste currently held in interim facilities. In 2013, Cumbria council rejected government plans to undertake preliminary work on that.

PAC called for “cleared discipline” in NDA’s managing of the 17 sites, that were built before the privatisation of Britain’s electricity system in the 1990s.

Watch: Astronaut shows glimpse of earth From space

READ MORE: Tax rises look 'inevitable' after dire UK economic forecasts

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, deputy chair of the public accounts committee (PAC), said: “Although progress has been made since our [2018] report, incredibly, the NDA still doesn’t know even where we’re currently at, in terms of the state and safety of the UK’s disused nuclear sites. Without that, and after the Magnox contracting disaster, it is hard to have confidence in future plans or estimates.”

“The NDA, with stronger, better oversight from government, must make a clear break with the incompetence and failures of the past and step up to maximise [the use of] the astronomical sums of taxpayers’ money it has absorbed,” he added.

In 2017, the NDA came under fire when it forced to terminate a contract for private sector firms to handle their decommission.

The NDA “welcomed” the PAC’s scrutiny and its recognition of the challenges of cleaning up old nuclear sites and would look carefully at the recommendations.

A spokeswoman said: “We do not accept the suggestions that we may not understand the safety of our sites.

“Our work is tightly and independently regulated to ensure we uphold the highest standards of safety. Our focus remains on ensuring we deliver this work of national strategic importance safely, effectively and efficiently,” she added.

There are eight operating nuclear power plants in the UK, with all but one due to retire in the next decade. One new plant is being built, at Hinkley Point in Somerset, but it’s years behind schedule and billions over budget.

While there was recent speculation over a new plant being built at Sizewell in Suffolk, there was no mention of this in prime minister Boris Johnson’s “green industrial revolution” plan last week.

The government’s new national industrial strategy, published on Wednesday as part of chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spending review, said: “The government is pursuing large-scale nuclear projects, subject to clear value for money for both consumers and taxpayers.”

MPs said long-term planning about how unwanted sites would be dealt with was an “afterthought” when UK’s nuclear industry was set up.

Watch: Why tax rises may be inevitable in Britain