The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has improved its performance in delivering major projects to reduce risk and high hazard at Sellafield, the NDA’s largest and most hazardous nuclear site. Yet it still has a long way to go in decommissioning and cleaning up the site, facing continued delays and an expected overspend of up to £913 million, says the National Audit Office (NAO) in a report published today.
Since the NAO last reported in 2015, the NDA and Sellafield Limited have made significant progress with programmes to reduce risk and hazard in legacy ponds and silos. This includes work to empty one legacy pond – the pile fuel storage pond – of 70% of its radioactive content. The NDA also expects it will reach critical milestones with legacy facilities earlier than it did in 2015.
The report also highlights that most major projects at Sellafield delivered their work to schedule and to budget in 2017-18. This continues a trend of improvement since 2014-15, following the NAO’s previous report in this area.
However, major projects are still predicted to deliver late and to cost more than the NDA originally expected. In 2015, the NDA’s nine major projects which were in construction were anticipated to cost an additional 60% of their budget at design stage. This has now been reduced to 29% over budget, which while a substantial improvement, is still a forecasted overspend of £913 million.
The NAO has also found that evaluating overall performance at Sellafield is difficult due to a range of factors. For example, since the NAO last reported, the NDA has cancelled three projects after spending £586 million on them, saying it found a better way of delivering the work. Legacy ponds and silos programmes have also delivered less work than originally planned in three out of the past six years, but are still expected to reach critical milestones early. Evaluating overall performance is also complicated by the fact that the NDA has not yet been able to demonstrate how its current work leads to progress against the long-term mission.
The NDA has also reported that Sellafield Limited has achieved £470 million in efficiency savings, but neither the NDA nor Sellafield Limited know their makeup and admit that a proportion do not represent genuine efficiency savings.
The NDA states that factors other than funding, such as physical constraints of the site, limit how fast they can achieve progress in the reduction of high hazard at Sellafield, yet it has not tested these factors sufficiently. The strategic decisions the NDA takes around prioritising activity at Sellafield could be profoundly changed and improved by a better, more evidence-based assessment of these constraints.
The NAO has found that the role of the NDA is unclear and this could put at risk the progress we are now seeing at Sellafield. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy’s (the Department) governance of the NDA is complex and not working as well as it should to support improvements at Sellafield. The recent failure of the NDA’s contract to decommission its Magnox sites, which the NAO reported on in October 2017, has exacerbated this lack of clarity and provides an important imperative for a review of how the NDA performs its function, and how the Department supports it in doing so.
The NAO has recommended that the role, function and governance of the NDA are reviewed, and that the NDA improves its understanding and communication of progress at Sellafield, as well as the constraints to faster and further progress.