It is axiomatic that some companies appear to have charmed lives: they operate in ways which are often unethical and sometimes illegal yet seem to bounce back stronger than ever. Companies such as G4S, Serco, A4E, Capita Group, and Atos have all featured in news stories about operational controversies over recent years and evidence something deeply corrupt and unjust in some elements at the heart of the UK's commercial sector. While this is worrying enough, the truth is that such incompetence – to put it at its mildest – isn't confined to the retail industry, the banking sphere or to those contracted to enforce government benefits policy. The nuclear industry also suffers from this perverse desire to re-employ and almost to fete those who fail.
Nuclear Management Partners (NMP), a consortium comprised of Areva, URS, and Amec which won the contract to manage the 'clean up' of the UK's nuclear cess pit, Sellafield, was the subject of a Guardian newspaper report in November 2013 which claimed that despite fierce criticism of its previous performance by accountants KPMG working on behalf of the Nuclear Decomissioning Authority (NDA), the group was to be awarded a five-year extension to the Sellafield nuclear decommissioning contract – an extension which itself was worth £5 billion. Before the award, NMP had been accused of financial mismanagement of breathtaking proportions, causing the Chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge, to declare that the contract extension was 'inexplicable' and that NMP had been guilty of 'spending money like confetti' (including a reported £714 expenses claim for a taxi journey for an executive – with their cat ). The money NMP was spending with such gay abandon is public money and was provided by the £3 billion annual grant the NDA receives from the public purse for the purposes of dealing effectively with the UK's legacy nuclear waste in a manner which demonstrates value for money for the public. It is worth reminding ourselves that Sellafield is host to more than two thirds of the nuclear waste in the UK – an unimaginably large inventory of radioactivity which, should even a small proportion of it be released as the result of an accident, would contaminate large areas of the country. The problems associated with the remediation of the Sellafield nuclear waste 'ponds and silos' as they are known are legion: so great was the government's desire to develop the nuclear bomb in the immediate post-war 1940s that waste was created and discarded without regard for any future consequences: a policy which we are now having to pay for and which is producing some intractable clean up problems.
As if the NMP track record were not bad enough, the KPMG report detailing its woeful financial management was only sent to the Public Accounts Committee at the last minute and was forced into the public spotlight by a member of the public using the Freedom of Information Act. That public-spirited individual was Dr David Lowry, a dogged and determined nuclear researcher and campaigner who uncovered this scandal over a seven year period of heroic sleuthing. Beyond the financial incompetence claims against NMP lies another more worrying claim that what had occurred was a 'scandalous agreement to fleece the tax payer', according to Dr Lowry. Commenting in an extensive article in the Ecologist magazine, he argues that 'The collusion between Government and the NDA on behalf of the private consortium, and manifestly against the public interest of the taxpayer, was revealed on 4th January 2009 in The Independent on Sunday – with my detailed assistance – in an article by (reporter) Geoffrey Lean, 'Officials plotted Sellafield cover-up: MPs were denied that chance to challenge sweetener to private firm's nuclear deal.' NMP was stripped of its contract – worth £22bn in total – in January 2015.
Without Lowry's tireless digging and tenacity, and without the bravery of MP Paul Flynn, who raised the matter in Parliament, this story may never have come to light. It begs the question what else is going on in the world of nuclear waste management, nuclear weapons production, and nuclear energy, where money seems to be no object and where a veil is pulled over the public's gaze either through legitimate concerns for security or for the more dubious demands of 'commercial confidentiality'? Who else is incompetent? Who else is taking the UK public for a ride and, in the process, putting us all at risk through incompetence in dealing with lethal materials? What, for example, is going on at the Atomic Weapons Establishment which is currently undergoing a spectacular refurbishment in preparation for construction of the next generation of Trident warheads – and facing management problems of a similar magnitude to those at Sellafield?
The privatised nature of the nuclear sector is causing the regulators to become more guarded and less able to pry into those areas of nuclear activity which will give them the level of confidence they need to give operations a clean bill of health. More importantly, the ever-growing commercial demands for confidentiality restrict the amount of information the regulators can pass on to environmental organisations, campaigners and local communities who all have a legitimate right to information about the safety and security of the sites in their midst. It is common to receive documents in response to a Freedom of Information request which have entire pages or even sections 'redacted' – blacked out for reasons of commercial or security confidentiality. Added to these operational pressures are those of a political nature imposed by government, anxious to meet timetables which will demonstrate compliance with its manifesto commitments or with international obligations it feels it might have to meet in terms of defence neeeds, climate change gas reduction targets or to demonstrate to the electorate its determination to 'keep the lights on'.
The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) designs and manufactures the UK's nuclear warheads and provides the support services for their maintenance. AWE, despite being owned by the government, is run by a private company: AWE plc, which is owned by a consortium of Jacobs Engineering, Lockheed Martin and Serco – the same Serco which was rewarded by government for running an immigration centre which was 'plagued by damaging allegations' by renewing an eight year, £70m contract. Lockheed Martin is not devoid of scandal either. Huge pay-offs for their executives – with money earned almost exclusively through contracts with government – ie public funds – have scandalised the US media while two of Lockheed's warplane developments have suffered set backs and technical problems which the US government has curiously – although familiarly – sought to solve by awarding them with further multi-million dollar contracts.
AWE plc's day-to-day management company is AWE Management Ltd, which holds a 25 year contract until March 2025 to operate the site. The government owns a 'golden share' in AWE plc. The issue of a golden share is significant in that it allows the government to out-vote all other shareholders under certain conditions. Just what those conditions are is unknown, but the effect is that the government can and might at any time decide to change AWE plc's management arrangement at any time. Recently rumours have surfaced in the press that the Ministry of Defence, dissatisfied with AWE plc's poor safety record and sorry performance in delivering improvements to AWE's infrastructure, is planning to cash in its 'golden share' and terminate the contract with AWE Management Ltd for running the Establishment.
AWE's work remains shrounded in secrecy. Its secretive Local Liaison Committee (LLC), whose job it is to act as an information conduit between the site and local communities, has failed dismally in raising issues of safety and management competence at AWE as it is packed with the company's cronies from local councils, with independent NGOs barred from membership. Nevertheless, Nuclear Information Service and others have managed to shed some light on perhaps the most important aspect of AWE plc's operations – its safety record – and found it wanting. Faulty fire detection, regulatory control orders, waste management failures and concerns about off-site radiation risks dog the plant and one is led to wonder if more scandals are waiting to be revealed.