Nuclear cleanup costs and problems rising

LONDON (Reuters) - The costs of cleaning up waste from Britain’s first civil nuclear power programme are still rising and uncertainties abound, the National Audit Office, the country’s public spending watchdog, said on Wednesday.

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Its report comes three weeks after the British government finally gave the green light to a new fleet of nuclear power stations to replace the retiring plants and help the country meet its carbon emission commitments.

But the current 73 billion pound cost of decommissioning the 19 existing nuclear sites over the next century is 18 percent above initial estimates, and the costs of even near-term actions are still rising when they should have stabilised.

Added to that, pressure on the finances of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the need to sometimes divert funds for unforeseen circumstances had led to significant uncertainty for site operators, the NAO said in its comprehensive report.

“Whilst the scale of the task is now better defined, estimates of costs to the taxpayer have continued to rise,” said NAO head John Bourn.

“At the same time, the start and stop nature of decommissioning work at some sites lessens the value for money of the significant resources invested to date,” he added.

“One of our primary roles going forward is to provide a level of certainty for our stakeholders on agreed plans for all our sites,” the NDA said in a statement.

“We remain confident that through innovation and world-class performance by our contractors we will first stabilise and then ultimately reduce the UK’s nuclear liability,” it added.

Britain’s nuclear power plants provide 18 percent of the nation’s electricity. All except one are scheduled to be taken out of service within 15 years -- and most well before then.

Opponents of nuclear new build point to the spiralling costs of decommissioning old plant and the problems of dealing with waste that remains deadly for thousands of years.

Advocates note that most of the existing plants were built well before any serious thought had been given to taking them out of service and that modern designs did incorporate that facility and in any case produced far less waste.

They also note that the bulk of the estimated decommissioning cost -- more than 45 billion pounds as currently stated -- applied to Sellafield in northwest England, the first and by far the biggest nuclear site dating back to the 1950s.

The National Audit Office accepted that the Decommissioning Authority’s task had been greatly complicated and its costs multiplied by the fact that nuclear bookkeeping had been very poor in the early days of atomic power.

This meant that there were in some instances only very sketchy records of what nuclear waste had been stored where and in which ponds on the Sellafield site.

Editing by Andrew Roche