The collapse of the deal to clean up the UK’s Magnox reactors has highlighted some serious flaws in the procurement process, and I suppose it is natural that opposition politicians have jumped upon these to make political points. But I wonder if the real story here isn’t rather different, and it’s one that neither the government nor the opposition really wants to hear, since they’re both committed to building a new generation of nuclear power plants.
The amount of work required to be done has turned out to be greater – much greater – than that specified in the procurement process for the contract. Whilst part of that may well be down to failures in drawing up the specification, on my reading of the situation the bigger problem is that the amount of work required was always unknown - and probably unknowable. “Decommissioning”, in relation to nuclear power stations, is a term tossed around as though those who use it know and understand exactly what is involved. But they don’t.
The real lesson we should be learning from this debacle is not that people need to be better at drawing up specifications and managing procurement processes, it is that we don’t adequately understand the nature and extent of the work required to decommission a nuclear power station. And given that the type of reactor proposed for the new stations isn’t the same as the ones currently being decommissioned, the extent to which lessons learned from the Magnox reactors can be applied in the future is inherently limited.
Despite that, the government, aided and abetted by the main opposition party, seems determined to plough ahead using a financial model which assumes that these unknown and unknowable future costs will be paid for by the companies operating the stations after they have closed. That suggests to me that they not only do not understand the technical challenges involved, they also don’t understand the nature of capitalist enterprise. There is no realistic prospect that the costs of decommissioning will fall anywhere other than on the taxpayer, but they are simply pretending that things are otherwise. Politicians who eulogise the immediate employment prospects whilst turning a blind eye to the longer term costs are either being dishonest or obtuse.