Unions are demanding answers over the future of Sellafield, one of the world’s most hazardous nuclear sites, as the US engineer leading toxic clean-up work there faces a $4bn (£2.3bn) takeover.
Last week, California’s Aecom announced that it has agreed to buy rival URS in a deal that could be worth £3.5bn once debt is included.
Industry insiders and unions are worried that URS heads Nuclear Management Partners (NMP), a consortium which has been criticised for a string of failures at the Cumbrian nuclear facility since it was awarded the decommissioning contract in 2009. Britain’s Amec and France’s Areva are NMP’s junior partners.
The industry was shocked that NMP was granted an extension to its deal last year, as costs have spiralled to what MPs have described as an “astonishing” £70bn-plus.
It is even understood that John Clarke, the chief executive of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), did not want to give NMP another chance after a 292-page KPMG report showed that nine of the biggest 11 projects to make Sellafield safe were £2bn over budget.
A further seven are due to be completed late, at a combined delay of eleven and a half years.
The deal is now set to fall into what an industry source described as “yet more confusion” by URS’s change of ownership, expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Union leaders want to know what due diligence the Government and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority are undertaking to ensure that Aecom is suitable to lead the Sellafield job.
Aecom’s British nuclear work has typically been on a much smaller scale, such as undertaking a condition survey of roof beams in a reactor at Dungeness A in Kent.
Gary Smith, GMB national officer for energy, told The Independent: “Presumably the British government were consulted about the takeover. UK taxpayers will want to know that the Secretary of State [Ed Davey] is on top of this and looking after the public interest.
“GMB will be demanding a statement from the company on the intentions for Sellafield and we want to know what due diligence government has done on the takeover, too.”
An industry source added: “The ownership change will just plunge Sellafield’s leadership into yet more confusion at a critical time, as the consortium tries to wrestle control of the decommissioning programme.
“The NDA will be left ruing the day it extended the contract.”
An Energy Department source insisted the contract was a matter for the NDA at this stage. An NMP spokesman insisted that it was “business as usual” and that URS is keeping the NDA “fully abreast of the situation”.
An NDA spokesman said: “The NDA considers that this [is] not a subject on which it is appropriate to comment.”