Recruitment crisis leads to nuclear safety fears

Regulator warns that staff shortages are undermining the industry, while consultancy fees soar and American firms cash in
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The Independent Online

The safety of Britain's nuclear reactors is at risk because of a shortage of inspectors, the former regulator of the nuclear industry has warned.

The safety of Britain's nuclear reactors is at risk because of a shortage of inspectors, the former regulator of the nuclear industry has warned.

The crisis has been compounded by continuing industrial unrest at the regulator. Inspectors, backed by their union, Prospect, have for the past 18 months refused to work overtime to help clear the backlog of work in a protest over pay.

They receive less than their counterparts at nuclear companies, making it even harder for the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) to recruit new staff. The NII is responsible for the safety and regulation of Britain's 27 reactor and research sites, as well as the dozens of nuclear waste storage sites.

Now there are fears within the nuclear industry that the regulator does not have the resources to oversee the construction of a new fleet of reactors. The Government is expected to seek bids to build the reactors next year, but bidders must have their design licensed by the regulator before work can begin.

Likely bidders - which include Westinghouse, the US arm of state-owned BNFL, and AECL of Canada - are concerned that the regulator's staff-shortage problems could delay the process.

Lawrence Williams, the former NII chief inspector, highlighted the crisis before leaving the regulator late last year. He warned: "Prolonged reduction of inspection will undermine our ability to effectively monitor the safety performance of the nuclear industry. There is a growing backlog of work that is being delayed or not being done and this, together with new work arising from industry programmes, concerns me."

The recruitment crisis has since worsened, with 14 current vacancies for inspectors out of a maximum of 179 staff at the NII, despite a recent major recruitment drive.

Heightened security fears and the establishment of a new nuclear waste body, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), mean the NII has more work, making its staffing problems worse.

Mr Williams, who has been appointed director of safety at the NDA, had for some time been concerned at the continuing staff shortages at the NII.

There are also fears within the nuclear industry that if this crisis continues, the operational performance of Britain's generating companies, BNFL and British Energy, may be affected.

Inspectors from the NII must authorise the restarting of a nuclear reactor when it is shut down for maintenance reasons. British Energy's output last year was down by more than 10 per cent on the previous year because of extended shutdowns at its Hartlepool and Heysham1 reactors. This pushed up losses for the last nine months of 2004 to £349m against £81m in 2003. However, a spokesman for the company said the shutdowns had not been prolonged by the shortage of inspectors.

British Energy is also planning to ask the regulator to extend the life of its reactors later this year. All but two of its reactors will be taken out of service within the next 10 years.

A spokesman for the Health and Safety Executive, which oversees the NII, admitted that non-urgent work - approving new designs and modifying existing facilities, for example - is being delayed because of the shortage of inspectors.

The spokesman also said "periodic safety review work", which documents the safety history of a reactor and must be carried out before its life can be extended, has been delayed. But he insisted there was no day-to-day operational impact on the running of Britain's nuclear reactors, which provide just over a fifth of the country's electricity.

"In the light of staffing shortages, NII senior management continually reprioritise the work so that safety-critical issues are given top priority," he added.

He blamed the staff shortage on a recruitment crisis within the nuclear industry, explaining: "There is a small pool of people to draw on, with fewer people studying physics."