Exclusive: Nuclear regulator the ONR accused of ‘indefensible’ conflict of interest

 

Britain’s nuclear watchdog faces what shocked industry insiders are calling “unbelievable” conflicts of interest, The Independent can reveal.

The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) is receiving technical advice from several of the very companies that it is supposed to be monitoring, including the US engineering conglomerate Jacobs and the Ftse 100 stalwart Amec. This has led to accusations that the advice cannot be viewed as independent.

ONR inspects nuclear sites across the country, including the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in Berkshire and Hinkley Point civil energy reactors in Somerset. It recently issued formal cautions to two workers on Cumbria’s Sellafield, one of the world’s most complicated decommissioning sites, for an incident that could have exposed themselves or their colleagues to heightened levels of radiation.

But there are fears that ONR’s efforts to oversee these hazardous sites could be compromised by contracts it has dished out for technical support in its assessment work.

In early April ONR handed Jacobs a five-year deal to help the watchdog in areas like assessing external hazards and decontamination in relation to its work on existing nuclear sites and future reactor designs. Amec gives advice on complicated issues such as reactor chemistry and radiation protection, while the consultancy Arup and building firm Sir Robert McAlpine help on civil engineering issues.

All have extensive nuclear interests in the UK. Jacobs is part of the consortium that owns AWE, which builds and maintains the UK’s nuclear defence deterrent, Trident.  Amec is in the consortium looking after the clean-up of Sellafield. Both of these huge firms are supporting Horizon Nuclear Power with engineering expertise on proposed plants at Wylfa on the Isle of Anglesey and Oldbury in south Gloucestershire. Arup worked for the operator RWE Npower on assessing potential sites for new nuclear power stations in Cumbria.  Sir Robert McAlpine built 13 of Britain’s nuclear plants, such as Sizewell B in Suffolk.

The news comes at a particularly sensitive time for ONR. It was only last month that the nuclear watchdog became an independent body, having previously reported to the Health and Safety Executive.

ONR executives want to stamp their authority on the fast-growing, lucrative nuclear industry as quickly as possible – particularly before the roll-out of a wave of new reactors starting with Hinkley Point C.

Shown the list of firms on ONR’s advisory panel, a nuclear industry expert said: “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. That’s unbelievable. It’s clear that these are conflicts that are compromising both the taxpayer and the ONR.”

Dr David Lowry, a member of Nuclear Waste Advisory Associates, said: “It’s so obvious that this is a conflict of interest, it’s such a straightforward conflict of interest. This is indefensible.”

ONR’s chairman, Nick Baldwin, admitted that “we have these concerns, too”, but there is a “small gene pool” of firms that provide the advice the regulator’s inspectors need to help carry out their work.  Mr Baldwin insisted that none of the same personnel act as both advisers and on the contracts monitored by ONR.

Tim Yeo, chairman of the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee, defended ONR. He said: “Historically the record of the regulator is pretty good. The public has trust in the integrity of the regulator.”

An ONR spokesman said that  its executives “recognise” that the industry also uses the technical support contractors to support its own work. But he insisted: “ONR would not tolerate a situation in which a person carrying out assessment for ONR is also working on a related matter for a current or prospective licensee. Should a potential conflict of interest emerge, we have a clear protocol that provides a robust process and defines clear criteria against which the emerging conflict can be judged.”

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