Nuclear watchdog risks meltdown, critics warn

The Office for Nuclear Regulation is responsible for ensuring the safety and security of 15 nuclear reactors, hazardous sites such as Sellafield and the transport and disposal of high-level nuclear waste. It also oversees the safety case for new reactors, reports The Times.

In recent months, it has been plagued by desertions, including the departure of Andy Hall, the chief inspector, and Alasdair Corfield, the finance director. Neither has been replaced.

The ONR has been struggling to recruit experienced staff and is advertising more than 20 vacant positions, including experts in the transportation of radioactive materials, cybersecurity, radiation protection and nuclear fuel safety.

Adriènne Kelbie was appointed chief executive in October but will not start until later this month. She runs the Disclosure and Barring Service, formerly the Criminal Records Bureau, and has no nuclear experience.

David Lowry, a nuclear industry consultant, said that he was “very concerned that the ONR doesn’t have the staff and expertise it needs” at a time when Chinese, French and Japanese companies are planning a huge expansion and existing UK reactors are approaching the end of their lives.

He said that the agency, which has about 350 staff and is based on Merseyside, was struggling to hire quality staff because of low pay and the high age of the nuclear workforce. No new nuclear power station has been built in Britain for 20 years and many engineers are close to retirement or are being offered lucrative roles working for private sector employers, such as EDF. Younger entrants are not yet experienced to work as regulators, Dr Lowry said.

The ONR acknowledged that it was facing “demographic challenges”, as well as a “highly competitive nuclear skills market which will continue to have an effect on [our] ability to recruit appropriately qualified and experienced nuclear specialists”. It rejected claims that the staff shortage was affecting its ability to regulate the industry effectively.

As well as overseeing Britain’s ageing fleet of nuclear plants, the ONR is responsible for verifying the safety of new reactor designs earmarked for UK use. These include plans to use new Chinese reactor technology at a site in Bradwell, Essex, French technology at Hinkley Point in Somerset and Japanese designs for use in Anglesey and Cumbria. In October, China signed an agreement to take a one-third stake in EDF’s £24 billion project to build a new reactor at Hinkley Point, raising concerns about the cyber security of UK national infrastructure.

Andy Blowers, who has served on a government committee dealing with the handling of nuclear waste, said that the ONR was thinly stretched, adding: “There are staffing pressures which mean they cannot cope.”

He called for extra resources for the ONR and said that the organisation was under political pressure because of budget cuts and demands from Whitehall to adopt a more commercial stance.

Nuclear plants generate about 18 per cent of Britain’s electricity, but those in service are reaching the end of their working lives. Last month, EDF said that three of its reactors had experienced unplanned shutdowns due to maintenance and electrical problems.