The cold war may be over but many players are far from open or transaprent in their dealings
One of the nuclear industry’s promises for the future is that it will turn its back on its cold war past and be more open and transparent about its dealings. So news last week that at least two of the officials assessing the safety case for new reactors at Hinkley Point C were on the pension roll of the scheme’s developers, EDF, was not encouraging.
The design assessment of the new European pressurised reactor (EPR) developed by EDF and its nuclear specialist Areva is important, because it is key to determining whether the public accepts the safety of Hinkley. It is disturbing that the few detailed answers obtained about who exactly undertook that review had to come by way of a Freedom of Information request, not by an immediate and voluntary statement from the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR).
It would surely be better that former EDF staff are not working on that assessment. But, on the other hand, safety officers have got to get their experience of the industry from somewhere. No doubt the problem is compounded by the fact that more than 25 years have elapsed since Britain last started to build an atomic power station and the wider pool of experts has diminished due to retirement.
The ONR has had recruitment difficulties; this may account for the fact that much of this design assessment was way behind schedule, only to be miraculously recovered at the end.
Unsurprisingly, independent experts question how thorough the oversight really was – and whether a whole load of problems have been parked to one side to be tackled later on. A senior inspector at the Finnish nuclear regulator STUK, which has been struggling for much longer to assess an EPR reactor for a domestic plant, says pointedly: “I don’t know how they (the ONR) did it so fast.”
And for such fast movers, it is odd that the ONR could not provide data on whether any of its inspectors had previously worked for EDF or Areva on the groundsbecause the files were in “deep storage”. That excuse would not have passed muster during the cold war.