Ed Davey fights back amid row over clean-up of Sellafield nuclear site

Controversial consortium was ‘put through its paces’ before getting contract extension

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The Independent Online

The Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, has hit back at critics over the Government’s apparent lack of oversight in the handling of Sellafield, one of the world’s most hazardous nuclear sites.

The Liberal Democrat peer Lord Avebury has written to Mr Davey demanding to know why ministers left the decision of whether to hand a contract extension to the private sector consortium running the clean-up of the site in Cumbria to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which owns Sellafield.

The decontamination is now set to cost more than £70bn, and the consortium, Nuclear Management Partners (NMP), has been heavily criticised for a vast number of delays and budget overruns.

In a recent parliamentary statement, the Government said the energy department was not in charge of awarding the extension last October as it was an “operational matter for the NDA”.

However, Mr Davey told The Independent that his department had “put the NDA as well as NMP through its paces” before the extension was permitted.

“This decision wasn’t completely left to the NDA,” said Mr Davey. “Something as big as this we were obviously consulted on and the NDA itself is still accountable to ministers. We didn’t sit back and say that we didn’t care and it was not a surprise to us when the NDA made their decision.”

Industry observers were shocked that NMP – which comprises the US engineer URS, France’s Areva and London-listed Amec – was granted another five years in charge of detoxifying Sellafield, a decision that was even more startling given that the consortium’s chairman, Tony Zarges, has apologised for his team’s performance since starting in 2009. In his letter to Mr Davey, Lord Avebury said he was “shocked” that the contract extension was not a ministerial decision.

He added: “I would be grateful if you could explain how such a vast contract was left to be approved as an operational decision by the NDA, without reference to ministers, at a time when cuts are still being made everywhere else in an attempt to balance the books.”

Last week, the influential Public Accounts Committee of cross-party MPs called on the NDA to sack NMP if its work does not improve and criticised the “astonishing” costs of the project.

A damning report by KPMG last year showed that nine out of the 11 biggest projects to make Sellafield safe, including the construction of a storage facility to store radioactive sludge, were a combined £2bn over budget.

The situation on site was so dire that there was widespread speculation that responsibility for decontaminating Sellafield, which houses more than 1,000 nuclear facilities on a site of only six square kilometres,  would be taken back in-house by the NDA.