The Government has admonished the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority for “inappropriately” withholding information from the public, after backing the findings of a heavily critical MPs’ report into the management of Sellafield.
Overseeing the Cumbria nuclear facility is one of the most hazardous detoxification jobs in the world and the NDA has entrusted a US-led private sector consortium, Nuclear Management Partners (NMP), with managing the clean-up. However, the House of Commons’ influential Public Accounts Committee was dismayed to find that costs have been soaring, with the final price-tag estimated at over £70bn.
The NDA stunned the industry when it handed NMP a five-year extension to its contract in October – it was widely thought the group would be axed for poor performance. A review by accountants KPMG only seemed to confirm how badly NMP had managed Sellafield, stating that the project was run in the interests of the consortium’s shareholders rather than those of the taxpayer.
But great swathes of the highly detailed, 292-page document – obtained in a Freedom of Information request by nuclear-issues expert Dr David Lowry – were blacked out. PAC chairwoman Margaret Hodge was furious that the NDA had redacted pages of vital information on the basis of commercial confidentiality.
In the committee’s own report earlier this year, it concluded: “The Authority should revisit its approach to disclosing information to ensure it does not use grounds such as commercial confidentiality inappropriately to withhold information on performance on its sites and by its contractors.”
The Department of Energy and Climate Change has said it agrees with this, and other committee recommendations, such as asking the National Audit Office to investigate whether there has been any improvement in the management of Sellafield a year into the contract extension.
Ms Hodge said: “I welcome the Government’s recommendation, but what is important is that real progress is made, urgently, to deal with nuclear waste. The taxpayer must not be seen as a bottomless pit for extra money.”
The NDA has agreed to review how it responds to FoI requests. This is not the only problem the Authority, which ultimately owns 17 historic civil nuclear sites, has suffered with this law. In November, a member of the public applied for information on the Dounreay site in the Highlands. The NDA did not give an answer until March and had to apologise “unreservedly” for failing to respond within the accepted time frame. The NDA pledged to strengthen the department that administers the requests.
Dr Lowry said: “I am pleased the NDA has been embarrassed by the PAC’s trenchant criticism of its recourse to absurd self-protective secrecy to commission a review of its approach. The NDA should take its responsibility to public accountability seriously, and not black out of released documents anything of use to FoI applicants. It is a pity it has taken a firm corporate bottom-smacking ... to force them to do this.”
An Energy Department source said: “There were a few criticisms in the committee’s report and we have accepted them.”