Six shocking facts about Sellafield
If the continually-delayed Hinkley Point C proposal wasn’t already generating enough bad press for the UK’s nuclear sector, the newly-emerged Sellafield nuclear storage scandal will only further colour public opinion.
Yesterday, BBC Panorama aired a laundry list of safety hazards it uncovered at the Cumbria site, from faulty infrastructure to radioactive material stored in plastic bottles. It's worth noting that Sellafield has since released a rebuttal to the claims made during the BBC's half-hour report, alleging gross simplification of the issues.
Here are six of the most shocking findings reported as facts by the programme.
Ignoring alarm bells
The Sellafield facility has thousands of alarms which ring to indicate potential problems. The whistleblower featured in the programme claimed that alarms were routinely reset by Sellafield staff without investigating the cause. In fact, it was stated that alarms at two of the plants at the complex were sounding thousands of times each day.
A leaked document called “Sellafield Key Performance Indicators”, released in 2013, said that any deviation from minimum staffing volumes was “not acceptable”. Most of the plants at the facility were found to be routinely low on staff, with minimum levels breached 19 times in one month in 2013.
Three years ago, an electricity substation at Sellafield exploded due to faulty wiring, with some nuclear units across the site losing power. After ventilation systems stop working in one area, radioactive dust spread throughout the building. A short time later, Sellafield’s managers appeared in front of Parliament — and then Managing Director Tony Price failed to tell MPs about the seriousness of the situation.
In 2008, a consortium of companies, including URS, AMEC and AREVA, was awarded the contract to manage Sellafield. When interviewed for the programme, the consortium’s one-time Director, David Pethick, was quoted as saying the condition of the complex’s infrastructure was “very poor” and on the verge of a breakdown.
Nuclear waste storage silos built “hastily” in the 1950’s currently contain radioactive material that would ignite upon contact with air. This material needs to be moved before the structure of the silos degrades too far, but no such action has yet been put in motion.
A report from the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) found that Sellafield’s Magnox, a major reprocessing plant, had four serious and potentially-fatal incidents occur within its walls between 2014 and 2015. Another ONR report claimed that the safety violations at Magnox constituted grounds for the closure of the entire complex.
Ofwat allows retailers to raise prices from April
Retailers can recover a portion of excess bad debt by temporarily increasing prices from April 2022, according to an Ofwat statement.
The regulator confirmed its view that levels of bad debt costs across the business retail market are exceeding 2% of non-household revenue, thereby allowing "a temporary increase" in the maximum prices. Adjustments to price caps will apply for a minimum of two years to reduce the step changes in price that customers might experience.
Measures introduced since March 2020 to contain the spread of Covid-19 could lead to retailers facing higher levels of customer bad debt. Retailers’ abilities to respond to this are expected to be constrained by Ofwat strengthening protections for non-household customers during Covid-19 and the presence of price caps.
In April last year, Ofwat committed to provide additional regulatory protection if bad debt costs across the market exceeded 2% of non-household revenue.
Georgina Mills, Business Retail Market Director at Ofwat said: “These decisions aim to protect the interests of non-household customers in the short and longer term, including from the risk of systemic Retailer failure as the business retail market continues to feel the impacts of COVID-19. By implementing market-wide adjustments to price caps, we aim to minimise any additional costs for customers in the shorter term by promoting efficiency and supporting competition.”
There are also three areas where Ofwat has not reached definitive conclusions and is seeking further evidence and views from stakeholders:
- Pooling excess bad debt costs – Ofwat proposes that the recovery of excess bad debt costs is pooled across all non-household customers, via a uniform uplift to price caps.
- Keeping open the option of not pursuing a true up – For example if outturn bad debt costs are not materially higher than the 2% threshold.
- Undertaking the true up – If a 'true up' is required, Ofwat has set out how it expects this to work in practice.
Further consultation on the proposed adjustments to REC price caps can be expected by December.
"While it’s great that regulators are helping the industry deal with bad debt in the wake of the pandemic, raising prices only treats the symptoms. Instead, water companies should head upstream, using customer data to identify and rectify the causes of bad debt, stop it at source and help prevent it from occurring in the first place," she said.
"While recouping costs is a must, water companies shouldn’t just rely on the regulator. Data can help companies segment customers, identify and assist customers that are struggling financially, avoiding penalising the entire customer in tackling the cause of the issue."
United Utilities picks up pipeline award
A race-against-time plumbing job to connect four huge water pipes into the large Haweswater Aqueduct in Cumbria saw United Utilities awarded Utility Project of the Year by Pipeline Industries Guild.
The Hallbank project, near Kendal, was completed within a tight eight-day deadline, in a storm and during the second COVID lockdown last November – and with three hours to spare. Principal construction manager John Dawson said the project helped boost the resilience of water supplies across the North West.
“I think what made us stand out was the scale, the use of future technology and the fact that we were really just one team, working collaboratively for a common goal," he said.
Camus Energy secures $16m funding
Camus Energy, which provides advanced grid management technology, has secured $16 million in a Series A round, led by Park West Asset Management and joined by Congruent Ventures, Wave Capital and other investors, including an investor-owned utility. Camus will leverage the operating capital to expand its grid management software platform to meet growing demand from utilities across North America.
As local utilities look to save money and increase their use of clean energy by tapping into low-cost and low-carbon local resources, Camus' grid management platform provides connectivity between the utility's operations team, its grid-connected equipment and customer devices.