UK: Fears for safety as nuclear watchdog hires staff from firms pitching to build reactors

Publisher Name: 
The Guardian

The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate is recruiting more than a
dozen project managers to speed up its review of new reactor designs -
even though they work for the companies hoping to build them.

The
Guardian has learnt that the government has approached companies
including the US groups Bechtel and CH2M Hill, as well as the UK's
Amec, to fill the senior posts. The companies involved are eager to
secure lucrative contracts to help build the UK's first new reactors
for decades.

Government and industry sources admitted the secondments posed potential conflict of interest problems.

It
is also understood that the inspectorate has recruited technical staff
from Areva, which has submitted one of the two reactor designs for
approval. One nuclear source said staff from the French firm, which is
partnered with EDF, would not be allowed to work on Areva's reactor
design and insisted they would be "technologically neutral".

There
are concerns that the potential conflicts of interest could compromise
the safety of the new nuclear reactors if the companies helping the
inspectorate have a vested interest in approving their design.

The
inspectorate has resorted to recruiting managers from the industry it
regulates because previous attempts to fill the posts have been
unsuccessful. Government officials also believe the body, which has
been plagued by staff shortages for years, lacks the commercial and
technical expertise to oversee the construction of a new generation of
nuclear reactors.

The work to test the two designs - from Areva
and Westinghouse, owned by Toshiba - is already behind schedule. The
inspectorate hopes new project managers will enable it to accelerate
the process so it can complete the work by the middle of 2011 as
originally envisaged.

Nuclear companies are becoming increasingly
nervous about the inspectorate's ability to handle the work and fear it
could delay the construction of new reactors. There are also concerns
that groups opposed to nuclear power, such as Greenpeace, could mount a legal challenge against the inspection process if it is flawed.

One
government source familiar with the nuclear industry said: "In any
outsourcing in government departments, particularly in those of a
regulatory nature, there is always the possibility of a conflict of
interest. But the NII has used outside advisers before."

Emma
Gibson, senior climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace, said: "The
NII is supposed to be independent. It's inevitable that there will be
bias in the system if you are going to hire people from the nuclear
industry. There will be safety concerns if the idea is to rush through
the reactor design assessment programme."

She said Greenpeace had been urging the government to provide the inspectorate with more resources to fill its vacancies.

A
spokesman for the NII did not confirm which companies had been
approached but said: "The NII has taken on a number of specialist
contractors to support both our assessment teams and also to improve
our project management capability - this is not unusual. In all cases,
the selection process and contractual arrangements we have in place are
designed to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest.

"Although
we have brought in people from outside the organisation to support our
work, as independent regulators we make all regulatory decisions."

AMP Section Name:Energy
  • 183 Environment