Sellafield faces nuclear option as overspending threatens plant's future


Britain’s biggest single nuclear project has run into serious trouble with missed deadlines and cost overruns threatening the future of the entire nuclear reprocessing operation at Sellafield in Cumbria.

Nuclear authorities have ordered a review of a monumental construction project at Sellafield that is millions of pounds over budget and more than four years late following a series of disastrous delays and financial mis-managment.

The “evaporator D” project was originally estimated to cost £90m and was due to be completed as early as 2010. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which has taken over responsibility for running Sellafield from the defunct British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, said that the actual costs are now estimated to be “around £400m” with a completion date no sooner than 2014.

The review, however, is likely to conclude that the final costs could be substantially greater, with some commentators predicting that evaporator D will soak up a further £100m of public funds.

The giant concrete and metal evaporator, which will be as big as an office block, is designed to reduce the volume of liquid waste from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. The delays threaten to seriously disrupt the operating timetable of Thorp, the thermal oxide reprocessing plant at the heart of the Sellafield operation that was scheduled for closure in 2018.

Nuclear executives fear that any further delays could jeopardise Thorp’s ability to deal with the backlog of nuclear waste from Britain’s ageing nuclear reactors – as well as the substantial quantities of foreign nuclear waste from Sellafield’s overseas customers – before it closes.

If Thorp had to to be kept open beyond 2018 to handle the spent-fuel backlog, many tens of millions of pounds of extra money would have to be found to upgrade the already troubled facility to ensure it remained safe to operate.

The evaporator D project was itself instigated in 2006 because of technical problems in the three older Sellafield evaporators – A, B and C – which are all now seriously corroded from handling highly-radioactive waste “liquor”.

At the time, the nuclear industry confidently predicted that evaporator D would cost just £90m, even though its construction at Ellesmere Port on Merseyside was unprecedented because it involved the off-site assembly of massive transportable modules.

Costs soared beyond expectation because of the complex civil engineering involved in building the 11 massive modules, each weighing up to 500 tonnes, and shipping them by a huge, purpose-built barge from Ellesmere Port to the Cumbrian coast, where a temporary bridge had to be been built to take the modules on to Sellafield by road over the River Ehen.

So far, only 3 of the 11 modules have arrived at Sellafield, suggesting that even the 2014 deadline may prove difficult to meet, despite the original plan for the evaporator to begin operations in 2010-11.

The Office of Nuclear Regulation, the official nuclear watchdog, said last year that it does not have full confidence in the ability of Sellafield Ltd, which manages the nuclear site, to complete the project on time.

Meanwhile, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) insisted that evaporator D is “fully funded” within the authority’s current four-year financial settlement of £12bn of taxpayer’s money. It said that the “D” evaporator will be adapted for other purposes after Thorp closes to extend its working life, thereby saving costs on a further evaporator, dubbed “evaporator E”.

This would mean that many millions pounds could be saved by merging evaporator E with evaporator D, the NDA said. “Previously it was thought a fifth evaporator would be needed for this purpose, but by increasing the scope of evaporator D the cost of constructing and operating a fifth evaporator can be avoided, leading to a net saving against the historic plans,” the NDA said in a statement.

“Following concerns around the cost and timescale pressures a full review of the project is underway and will ultimately lead to an updated project plan,” the NDA said.

“We expect this will result in increases to both costs and schedule. Until that review is complete and a new plan [is] produced by our contractors it would not be appropriate to speculate on the details of these impacts,” it said.

“We would expect any requirement for additional expenditure on the evaporator D project, whilst requiring government approval, to be met from within the existing funding settlement,” it added.

The delays and cost overruns of the evaporator D project are on top of the fiasco of the £1.34bn Sellafield Mox Plant, a nuclear fuel factory that was also delivered late, many times over budget and proved to be a technical and commercial failure.

In numbers: Sellafield's issues

£400m: Current estimated cost of project

11: Number of modules used in construction

500: Maximum weight – in tonnes – of each module

3: Number of years spent operating with Thorp

25 years: Its expected operational life

Q&A: Sellafield's £400m problem

 Q What is "Evaporator D"?

A It is a construction project at Sellafield plant which will reduce the volume of liquid waste from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.

Q How much will it cost?

A The project is vastly over-budget and four years late. After an original estimate of £90m and completion date of 2010, the cost has risen to about £400m and it is not expected to be finished until at least 2014.

Q What went wrong?

A Costs soared partly because engineers underestimated the expense of building 11 massive components, each weighing 500 tonnes, and shipping them to the plant by purpose-built barge. So far, only three of the 11 modules, pictured above, have arrived.

Richard Hall