The Guardian: Conflict of interest concerns over EDF’s Hinkley nuclear project approval

Nuclear experts receiving EDF pensions were involved in the official safety review of the company’s planned Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset, sparking concerns about a conflict of interest over the approval of the project.

The involvement senior executive grade officers at the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) made it “very difficult” for the regulator to take a critical eye, warned another independent industry consultant.

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The revelations, obtained via a series of freedom of information (FoI) requests, raise wider concerns about the use of consultants due to a lack of experienced staff inside the ONR and come a week after the Hinkley project got a go-ahead from the European competition directorate for a proposed UK subsidy scheme.

Building new reactors is a key part of the coalition’s plan to keep the lights on in the medium term when old coal and atomic power plants are coming to the end of their lives.

EDF, the French state energy group, plans to use a new European pressurised reactor (EPR) design for the Somerset plant that was successfully submitted for approval to the ONR, a statutory body which boasts of holding the nuclear industry to account on behalf of the public.

But the standards of the safety and regulatory sign-off of the new Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant has been called into question by experts, who believe the construction will run over budget or fail.

Critics argue that vital safety issues highlighted in the regulatory process were ignored, which may have happened to ensure the project’s approval met the deadline set out by the UK government.

“The ONR bypassed a number of safety issues with the rationale of ‘although it is not solved we think it will be solved by the time we need’,” said nuclear industry consultant John Large. “I suspect the political pressure was on them. The government was putting the pieces in place to give an announcement [that Hinkley Point C had been approved] in January 2013.”

The safety regulator said two of its staff had EDF pensions but refused to disclose if other employees and contractors, who were not receiving pensions, had worked at EDF or the other firms involved in the project such as Areva, China General Nuclear Power Group and China National Nuclear Corp.

The ONR stated it could not release this information because the files holding these details are “in deep storage and away from the ONR’s main office location” but it said that all its staff were obliged to comply with the civil service code of conduct.

It insisted there was no question of a conflict of interest: “Neither of the individuals concerned were employed by other companies whilst working for ONR. Any individuals who received a payment from companies or organisations involved in the GDA (generic design assessment), in addition to ONR, would be expected to declare this interest, which is recorded in the register of business interests.”

But the regulator said it had struggled to recruit as quickly as it might have wanted to do and relied on a pool of experts who could also be employed by the wider industry.

“ONR would not tolerate a situation in which a person carrying out assessment for ONR is also working on a related matter for a current or prospective licensee. Should a potential conflict of interest emerge, we have a clear protocol that provides a robust process and defines clear criteria against which the emerging conflict can be judged.”

The Department of Energy and Climate Change declined to comment on the issue saying it was a matter for the ONR which operated independently from government.

Large is not the only one concerned with the speed at which the ONR’s safety assessment was carried out. “I don’t know how it is feasible,” said Mika Johansson, a senior inspector at STUK, the Finnish nuclear regulator which is overseeing the construction of another EPR reactor in its own country. “I don’t know how they [the ONR] did it so fast.”

The ONR did indeed flag up problems with the instrumentation and control system during its design assessment process. In its quarterly updates on progress, each aspect of the plan was graded by a traffic light-style alert system that represented the difficulty of solving the issues raised.

In August 2012, six issues related to the instrumentation and control system were highlighted. Four of these were given a red alert, which, according to the report means the resolving of these issues are “in serious doubt with serious risks apparent”. By December the nuclear regulators approved the EPR design, signing off all of these alerts without much explanation.

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