Whitehall farce explodes over nuclear clean-up and clean energy commitments

Posted by jamie — 24 July 2008 at 2:55pm - Comments

Well, what do you know? Another news story has broken which demonstrates that the UK's nuclear industry is not the robust, well-managed machine our ministers would have us believe. The government has sneaked out a report assessing the working practices of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) which is managing the clean-up of existing power stations and waste. They were clearly hoping no one would notice as there's no doubt that many people have been caught with their pants anklewards.

Setting aside the spiralling costs of nuclear waste management (which are now about the same as the bill for the Apollo moon landings), we find the NDA in a sorry state of mismanagement. Staff apparently lack basic financial skills and were confused about accountancy terms, leading to severe errors in the balance sheets. I'm happy to report that employees in the finance team have been sent for retraining to brush up on their times tables.

It's not just specialised knowledge that's lacking. Simple tasks like taking notes at meetings seem to have been overlooked, to the extent that major decisions made between the NDA and the Treasury have gone unrecorded, leading to gross misunderstandings over budgets. Everyone has since agreed that it would be a good idea to write these things down and put them somewhere safe. Like a filing cabinet.

The audit goes on to say that there are "inherent risks" in the way the NDA operates, pointing out that half of its income is dependent on unreliable sources such as fuel reprocessing at Sellafield's Thorp plant (closed since a leak was discovered in 2005) so perhaps a more stable financial model might be in order.

Given all this, investing in less volatile and more reliable sources of energy might seem appropriate. But oh dear, it looks like the government is still set on knobbling those in favour of its twin obsessions, nuclear and coal.

The proposed EU renewables directive - legislation designed to set minimum levels of energy generated from renewable sources across Europe - wants to see the UK getting 15 per cent of its energy from clean sources by 2020. A section has been included in the directive to ensure that "member states shall also provide for priority access to the grid system of electricity produced from renewable energy sources", but British ingenuity has been focused on changing "shall" to "may".

A teeny tiny change, you might think, but in practice it would remove any obligations on our government to make sure renewable sources were given access to the National Grid before others such as, well, nuclear power and coal. And it's a stance at odds with the energy strategy launched by Gordon Brown last month which promised to "[remove] grid access as a barrier to renewables deployment". But then maybe someone didn't take minutes at that meeting.

And I can't finish without mentioning the fourth leak from a French nuclear power station in just two weeks. Safe, reliable energy, no doubt about it.

About Jamie

I'm a forests campaigner working mainly on Indonesia. My personal mumblings can be found @shrinkydinky.

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