Mark Leftly: Nuclear clean-up has been a toxic waste of public money


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The Independent Online

Westminster Outlook A hapless consortium led by URS (now part of US rival Aecom) was finally axed from leading the clean-up of Cumbria’s Sellafield last week.

Over-budget and behind schedule on numerous projects on what is, admittedly, one of the most hazardous nuclear detoxifications in history, this consortium had been remarkably fortunate to see its contract renewed in 2013. After it had regained its contract, Nuclear Management Partners (NMP) even apologised to MPs for its dismal performance.

I’m told that Energy Secretary Ed Davey finally had enough just before Christmas, which makes a document from November that I have just been passed all the more amusing. Sellafield’s top brass told the West Cumbria Sites Stakeholders Group – or the WCSSG if over-long acronyms are your bag – that there was “increasing confidence that we can achieve what we promised to do, on time and to budget”, while also praising the support of Davey’s department.

As Dr David Lowry, the independent nuclear research and policy consultant who has worked tirelessly to expose Sellafield’s many problems, puts it, this was “Panglossian” and shows that they “never let the facts get in the way of their rosy-eyed vision”.

The GMB union is no less furious. In a letter to Davey, 150 shop stewards have warned him that they are effectively working for a “zombie management team”, which would be quite cool if it was literally the case. What they mean, though, is that under the terms of the contract termination, NMP will remain involved in Sellafield while transitioning to a fresh leadership team by April next year.

At a price tag of nearly £80bn, the Sellafield deal is one of the most significant commercialisations of what, historically, would have been public sector work. Davey, who I think has otherwise emerged from Coalition as a quietly formidable secretary of state, must ask himself why he did not block the contract extension in 2013.

It was a poor call from a minister who has otherwise earned the compliment of being a safe pair of hands. While he should be congratulated for finally getting this right, the GMB is equally correct that NMP should not stay in place any longer.

Time, on this project in particular, is money – and we cannot allow taxpayer funds to be mishandled for another 15 months.