PLANS to privatise the £48 billion clean-up of the UK's nuclear sites could put public safety at risk. The warning comes in documents compiled by the UK government's nuclear safety advisers released to New Scientist under the new Freedom of Information Act.
They reveal "serious concerns" about the plans, which will allow private companies to tidy up the radioactive mess left by 60 years of nuclear power. Advisers fear that financial pressures will encourage the companies to cut corners and will increase the risk of accidents.
Work is about to begin on dismantling and cleaning up reactors, waste stores and contaminated land at 20 sites across the UK. The government wants the management of at least half the sites to be put out to competitive tender before the end of 2008. The aim is to drive down costs by allowing private companies to bid against the state organisations that currently run the sites.
But two expert bodies that advise government ministers - the Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee (NuSAC) and the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) - are worried that competition will harm safety. "Pressure to prepare for competitive bidding in the very short term could compromise safe operation," one memo warns. It argues that managers and workers anxious about their jobs would pay less attention to safety. There is also a danger that in a complicated system of parent companies and contractors profit could come before safety.
The memo was sent by NuSAC in July 2004 to the chair of the HSC, Bill Callaghan, with a request to make ministers aware of the concerns. It was not until November that Callaghan wrote privately to Patricia Hewitt, the trade and industry secretary.
The target of putting the management of 10 nuclear sites out to tender within three years "would be extremely challenging, if not impossible, if sites are to ensure priority is given to continuing effective management and control of safety," Callaghan wrote. It was "regrettable", he said, that regulators had not been consulted on whether the target was "practically and legally achievable".
Hewitt's reply in December stuck to the government's plan to create a "dynamic and open market" for nuclear decommissioning, though she hinted that the timetable could be renegotiated if it really threatened safety. "The experience of the US market suggests that ambitious competition schedules do not lead to a reduction in safety," she insisted.
Ian Jackson, an ex-nuclear inspector for the government's Environment Agency echoes NuSAC's safety fears. He points out that sites with different owners and managers will create "genuine risks" for safety regulators. He adds that the US experience has not been without problems. Its clean-up programme was strongly criticised by a review set up by President George W Bush in 2002 for "failing to deliver", and has since been revamped.
NuSAC also expressed concern about growing pressures on the government's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. The minutes of a NuSAC meeting in July reveal that an unpublicised 18-month work to rule by inspectors has led to a 15% reduction in site inspections.
After a failed recruitment campaign last year, the inspectorate is now 14 short of its full complement of 179 inspectors. "Prolonged reduction of inspection will undermine our ability to effectively monitor the safety performance of the nuclear industry," says Laurence Williams, who recently quit as chief inspector.