Nuclear decommissioning: How Whitehall turned toxic waste into a dirty mess

wylfa nuclear power station

Decommissioned power station at Wylfa in Anglesey

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It is possibly Whitehall’s biggest blunder. it certainly involves one of the biggest contracts ever let by government. And you will have shelled out hundreds of millions of pounds for very little in return.

The subject is the decommissioning of 10 nuclear power stations and two research centres – now all past their sell by date – and all leaving the taxpayer with an almighty bill to detoxify them and make them safe.

The total bill to do this was meant to be £3.8 billion but it turned out to do it properly would cost £6.2 billion- making it possibly one of the biggest contracts ever let by Whitehall.

And what a mess Whitehall civil servants and their ministers made of it. The whole sorry story was revealed in a report by Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office, this month.

. The  £6.2 billion contract was approved by the Treasury because it promised to save taxpayers £904m by loading risks on the contractors. Instead it has only saved £255m and this has been partly wiped out by a botched tendering procurement which ended up with a rival consortia being able to sue the government for damages.

The company that won – an American led consortium Cavendish Fluor Partnership (CFP) based in Texas- was awarded the contract illegally.

We know this because its rivals Energy Solutions which includes Bechtel successfully sued  the government in the High Court last year and the High Court ruled that Fluor should have been disqualified because the final contract was nothing like the one put out to tender.The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ministry has just settled the bill with Energy Solutions by agreeing to pay then £97.3m in compensation.

But the real bill was even more. The NAO found that the full cost amounted to £122m.  It spent £13.8 million on legal and external advisers. Of this, £3.2 million was spent on the competition and £8.6 million was spent on legal fees in the ensuing litigation. The NDA estimates that in-house staff time has cost £10.8 million. This excludes the cost of staff time of senior central government officials who were heavily involved in decisions, particularly about the National Decommissioning  Authority’s settlement and its decision to terminate the contract.

One reason for this debacle is believe or not is that officials  did  not know the state of some of the decommissioned  power stations so had to revise its estimates as more problems came to light- changing the terms of the winning bidder’s contract.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office: “The NDA’s fundamental failures in the Magnox contract procurement raise serious questions about its understanding of procurement regulations; its ability to manage large, complex procurements; and why the errors detected by the High Court judgement were not identified earlier.

In light of these issues, the Department must consider whether its governance and oversight arrangements surrounding the NDA are sufficiently clear and effective in providing the scrutiny and assurance it requires to meet the standards expected in managing public money.”

There is now an inquiry going on under Steve Holliday, former chief executive of the National Grid. Its terms of reference include whether disciplinary action should be taken against the civil servants who made such a botched job and cost us even more money. It could mean heads should roll.

And it leaves the government another big problem because the contract with the present consortium has had to be terminated in 2019 – nine years before it is due to end.

And the axe is due to fall just as Brexit comes in – leaving more unfinished business just when Britain may well leave Euratom. What a mess.

I have written about this in Tribune. The full NAO report is here.

 

 

 

The Treasury: Destroying Britain’s world leadership in green technology

cop 21 carbon capture

Carbon capture from Cop21

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There has been much said that Britain doesn’t capitalise on its own innovation – and leaves other countries to do so. Much of the blame is put on companies not wanting to invest – but it is often acknowledged that the state has a role to pump prime innovation.

In green technology Britain is seen to have surrendered the lead it once had on wind farms – with nearly all the technology now being imported.

What has not been really reported is the role of the Treasury in encouraging or discouraging green technology. Until now.

A report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee in the dying days of Parliament shows just how baleful the Treasury has been in destroying Britain’s world prospects coupled with writing off taxpayers money. And the main culprit in the last six years must be George Osborne and to a lesser extent, former Liberal democrat energy secretary, Chris Huhne- despite the Liberal  Democrats green image.

Officially the report was on the abandonment of carbon capture technology. –

The Commons  criticised the handling of decisions by the last coalition and Conservative governments to waste some £168m by cancelling competitions to develop new carbon capture technology before its potential could be realised.

The Mps concluded: “ The UK has now missed opportunities to be at the forefront of a growing global industry” but say this is part of the pattern where the Treasury halts projects for short term financial gain over the last decade.

“The UK may now have lost any competitive advantage to export CCS technology to countries that are seeking options to reduce their own carbon dioxide emissions, which could have created engineering and R&D jobs in this country. This is reminiscent of government decisions in the 1980s not to develop renewables, meaning the UK lost its position as the world leader in emerging technologies such as wind power.

“Neither the Department nor the Treasury evaluated the potential benefits for the UK’s economy of having a globally competitive CCS sector prior to the competition being cancelled.”

What is more damning is how MPs go on to provide a shopping list of failure to support green technology.

“These included cutting feed-in tariffs for solar and onshore wind; scrapping the zero-carbon homes regulation; withdrawing the grandfathering support policy for biomass projects; privatising the Green Investment Bank; and cutting subsidies for low-emission vehicles.”

The original decision to halt the first attempt at carbon capture technology was made by Chris Huhne when he cancelled an experiment at Longannet power station in Scotland. Then George Osborne halted for short term savings a development at Drax coal fired power station in 2015.

Mean while in the rest of the world 20 projects are going ahead. As Mps conclude:

“Halting CCS’s deployment means that the UK will have to pay billions of pounds more to meet its decarbonisation targets, has missed opportunities to be at the forefront of a growing global industry, and has damaged investors’ confidence in working with the government on CCS in the future.”

Given we are supposed to be proudly standing alone -post Brexit – and need to develop new technologies here, this is doubly damaging. But then it seems politicians are more interested in rhetoric than action.

I have written a piece in Tribune on this.

 

Thames Water: Unfit to protect our environment

 

Sewage around Marlow pc credit Environment Agency

Raw Sewage and foam around sailing boats on the Thames. pic credit: Environment Agency

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The record £20m fine for  Thames Water’s multiple pollution of the River Thames and its tributaries  with over 1.4 billion tonnes of untreated sewage shows  how badly the company was managed.

It makes the incident where the company polluted the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal seem small fry compared to the damage the company caused to humans, livestock. wildife and fish across Hertfordshire,Buckinghamshire, Berkshire  and Oxfordshire.

Thames Water admitted 13 breaches of environmental laws over discharges from sewage treatment works in Aylesbury, Didcot, Henley and Little Marlow, and a pumping station at Littlemore.

It also pleaded guilty to a further charge on March 17 over a lesser discharge from an unmanned sewage treatment plant at Arborfield in Berkshire in September 2013.

The court at Aylesbury also took into account seven further incidents at sewage sites on the Thames in 2014.

thames waterWhat was extraordinary was the lax attitude of  top managers who ignored warnings from staff about failures in the system

 No wonder the judge Francis Sheridan said: “This is a shocking and disgraceful state of affairs. It should not be cheaper to offend than take appropriate action.”

He added: “What a dreadful state of affairs that is.

“Logbook entries reflected the pathetic state of affairs and the frustration of employees.

“Thames Water utilities continually failed to report to the Environment Agency despite (managers) being fully aware of the issues and reporting governance.”

He later said of the firm: “There is a history of non-compliance.”

Anne Brosnan, the Environment Agency’s chief prosecutor, said in The Guardian: “Thames Water was completely negligent to the environmental dangers created by the parlous state of its works. Our investigation revealed that we were dealing with a pattern of unprecedented pollution incidents which could have been avoided if Thames Water had been open and frank with the EA as required.”

But should  we be surprised? Thames Water is a remote multinational making huge profits – and a £20m fine – large as it is – will still hardly dent a £742m annual profit.It is also only a quarter of the annual dividend paid to investors.

And it’s owners include Kuwaitis, the Chinese, Canadians and other international foreign investors . What will they care if fish die in Oxfordshire and  humans running sailing clubs become ill.

They are now claiming it is better managed and promising tigher controls. But they won’t want to sacrifice the bottom line and have a captive audience who can’t live without water or disposing their waste.

If ever there is a case for the return of  public ownership Thames Water have made it today. They have proved themselves unfit to protect the environment.

 

 

Whitehall doesn’t rule OK: How Wendover canal trust tragically missed out on a £1 million payout from river polluters

thames water

Thames Water’s pollution of the Wendover Arm led to the £1m fine

Over a year ago I raged about the injustice of the very wealthy Thames Water private utility being fined £1m for polluting the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal  with sewage because they ignored a simple £30,000 repair to the outfall of Tring sewage works. The article is here.

I thought it was particularly unfair on the volunteers who are restoring the canal  and decided to write to our local MP, David Gauke, who is now chief secretary to the Treasury, suggesting that the government might reimburse the fine to help the trust. which desperately needs the money.I also lobbied David Lidington, now leader of the House, to see, as Wendover is in his constituency, whether he would back the idea.

Conservative Party Portraits

David Gauke MP, the Treasury minister said No

David Gauke took a long time to reply ( he admitted that his office had mislaid my letter) but finally at the end of January he replied from the Treasury.

His answer was a resounding NO. He wrote: ” Fines are considered a tax-type revenue and government departments and their agencies, in this case the Environment Agency, are legally obliged to surrender these receipts to the Treasury. revenue surrendered to this account is not ring fenced for any specific area of government funding..”

environment agency letter

Full Text of Letter saying NO from David Gauke

Imagine my surprise then to see this press release  on the same day from the Environment Agency.

Environmental charities receive over £1.5 million from businesses which broke environmental laws

This revealed :

“There are 26 Enforcement Undertakings on the new list with payments ranging from £1,500 – £375,000, including 6 companies that have agreed to make 6 figure payments: ( among these were)

  • Northumbrian Water Limited (£375,000) for pumping raw sewage into a tributary of the River Tyne.
  • Filippo Berio UK Limited (£253,906.91) for failing to recover or recycle packaging waste.
  • Anglian Water Services Limited have made two separate payments (£100,000 and £100,000) both for causing pollution incidents which killed fish.

Among the beneficiaries were the Nene Country Park in Northamptonshire and river trusts  on the Tyne. The list of enforcement undertakings is published here:https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/enforcement-undertakings-accepted-by-the-environment-agency

It shows a much wider group of people have benefited.

So I wrote back to the minister which led to this reply last week from Department for Environment and Rural Affairs.

Yes they had been able to do this since 2015 – by accepting Enforcement Undertakings to cover river pollution rather than taking companies to court.

The court case involving Thames Water was in 2016. But here’s the rub -because the pollution took place in 2012 and 2013 it was not covered by the change in the law.

david gauke letterTwo points from this tragic state of affairs. First I am surprised by the ignorance of David Gauke that as a Cabinet minister he didn’t know his own government had changed the law.

Second it seems very unfair the Wendover Arm Trust has lost out. Perhaps pressure should be put on Thames Water – who has just been fined for polluting the River Thames – to give a donation to the trust. And certainly  if they repeat this pollution immediate representation should be made to the Environment Agency for an Enforcement Undertaking so money can be handed out to the trust in future.

 

The loss of Zac Goldsmith and the Lib Dem revival

zac-goldsmith-now-former-mp-pic-credit-bbc

Zac Goldsmith: defeated at yesterday’s by-election by the Liberal Democrats Pic credit: BBC

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I have very mixed feelings about the defeat of Zac Goldsmith in the sensational by election victory for the :Liberal Democrats in Richmond Park.

I completely disagree with him over Brexit and I felt he had been seduced by Lynton Crosby’s dog whistle sub racist and Muslim terrorist smear campaign in the Mayor of London election. Anyone in the Tory Party with any sense should know that this would not work in multicultural and multiracial London from the 2015 General Election result- Labour actually gained seats in the capital. And whatever one thinks of Sadiq Khan he is not remotely a terrorist sympathiser.

But I think Zac should be praised  for a rare  quality in British politics. He is a real democrat who believes MPs should be accountable to the people who elect him.

His plan was to give 5 per cent of the electorate the right to start the process of  forcing an MP to stand down  if they misbehaved badly or were suspended from the Commons. He failed to get such a radical idea accepted in  full – but nevertheless an act was passed which could allow the triggering  of such a process.

He also was a man of his word. He asked approval of his voters to stand for Mayor of London as it would mean giving up his seat and he kept his word  by asking his electorate to approve his stance against Heathrow’s third runway.

This time he lost because  of his stance on Brexit.

It is also to his credit that he is a genuine environmentalist who campaigns on green issues – hence his opposition to Heathrow and his support for renewable energy. It is a bit ironic that the Greens contributed to his defeat as he would agree with a lot of their policies in this area.

He also took a brave  stance on child sexual abuse – particularly when it became clear that his constituency was a venue for historical  child sexual abuse in the 1980s. His stance was justified  when ,under Operation Fernbridge, Southwark Crown Court heard about the abuse of boys at Grafton Close children’s home and a Roman Catholic priest was sent to jail for his part in abusing kids with the now dead head of the home  John Stingemore.. Richmond Council under both the Tories and the Liberals had hidden this at the time.

He also was the driving force to get an all party initiative to set up a national independent inquiry into child sexual abuse because he thought it was such a serious issue. It is not his fault that it is at the moment facing serious disarray and needs to get its act together. He had good instincts and is really concerned about the plight of survivors.

Now why has he lost and what does this mean for the Liberal Democrats and Labour Party.

Political commentators should have seen this coming. The Liberal Democrats have won over 20 council seats since the General Election in by-elections – in some cases with increases in vote share of 30 per cent or more. They are winning in both pro Remain and pro Brexit  areas.There have been gains  in pro Brexit cities like Sheffield – when the Lib Dems leapt over second place UKIP to take a seat from Labour and only last night in Chichester  the Lib Dems took a seat from the Tories in a pro Brexit constituency. In Newcastle – wafer thin remain majority – it is the Lib Dems that are again challenging Labour for council seats not UKIP.

The reason I think is clear. Everyone knows where the Lib Dems stand on Brexit- it is a simple message – and it is getting through and people also remember some Lib Dems as  good conscientious local councillors.

For Labour it is not clear where exactly where they stand. In poor  areas – like central Carlisle and Hackney – where it is clear  that Labour stands for supporting those on the margins – their vote is going up. But in many marginal seats they are starting to lose to the Tories and the Lib Dems. This will not win them the next election and they can’t do it on just defending the NHS – because no party is going to be stupid enough to stand for abolishing the NHS. They are only to chip away at it.

So Labour needs as a matter of urgency to work out some simple messages that voters understand. Otherwise they will lose the plot.An army of  new members will not be enough if they have no simple message.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the way: Multi million pound fines for Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom

andrea leadsom

Andrea Leadsom Pic Credit: BBC

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It is probably an extreme irony that Theresa May has dumped  leadership rival Andrea Leadsom right in the slurry with the job at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs(Defra)

For the Eurosceptic Brexiteer is going to have to eat a lot of humble pie and hand over more money than any other minister to the European Commission long after the United Kingdom has quit the European Union.

Her appointment coincided with the latest accounts from Defra with a caustic comment  from the National Audit Office once again qualifying them because of their incompetence in handing out £2.3 billion of subsidies to British farmers.

But this rap on the knuckles means more than that – as it sets up the UK to have to pay a fortune in fines to the EU. I have written about it in Tribune here.

As the article reports:”Failures under Labour and coalition governments to administer properly a previous farm subsidy programme have already led the Commission to fine the UK £661m.
“But this year’s failure to deliver money to farmers on time – with well over half receiving late payments – has already led to over £65m being set aside for fines in the last financial year.”

As Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: “The Department continues to struggle with managing the complex CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) scheme in a way that ensures accurate, timely payments to farmers. As a result, it has incurred EU penalties of £65.8 million related to the CAP scheme in 2015-16, and estimates that it owes 13,000 farmers a total of at least £25.3 million.

“Exit from the European Union will not, in the short term, reduce these penalties. The Department therefore needs to ensure its strategy for tackling these challenges is effective.”

This means that Leadsom and her Eurosceptic farming minister, George Eustice, are going to face a double task until 2020.

First they are going to have to continue sorting out the ministry’s failure to pay farmers on time  while having to devise a national British system of supporting farmers which is bound to be controversial.

The NAO are estimating that if anything the level of fines could go up because of the complexities of the payments.
The ministry is promising a new strategy to sort out the problem – saying it expects payments to be better in 2016 than last year. But to do this it has – already according to the accounts – incurred a £6m increase in its pay bill by having to employ temporary staff to sort out computer failures and mistakes and delays in payments to farmers.

It is going to more than of just passing interest to see how the pair cope with such a mess.

Is a £1 million fine a drop in the ocean for Thames Water?

thames water

Thames Water’s pollution started all of this with a £1m fine

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Today the Environment Agency is rightly triumphant in celebrating a £1 million fine against Thames Water for polluting the Grand Union Canal for  nine months in nearby Tring.

This is the highest fine imposed by the courts ever in history according to a release from the Environment Agency. But is it really going to hurt Thames Water apart from the bad publicity?

First of all the case. It was brought by the Environment Agency after Thames Water caused repeated discharges of polluting matter from Tring STW (Sewage Treatment Works) to enter the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal in Hertfordshire between July 2012 and April 2013.

In May Thames Water pleaded guilty before Watford Magistrates Court to two charges under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010. On Monday 4 January, at St Albans Crown Court the company was ordered to pay a fine of £1 million, costs of £18,113.08 and a victim surcharge of £120.

Their report goes on:

“The court heard that poorly performing inlet screens caused equipment at the works to block, leading to sewage debris and sewage sludge being discharged into the canal. The inlet screens should take out the majority of sewage debris referred to as ‘rag’ from the process, but the screens had repeatedly failed in this case.”

And it adds: ” The Environment Agency received complaints from the Canal and Rivers Trust and from the general public about pollution in the canal. Officers attended the site on several occasions, they saw sewage debris including panty liners and ear buds in the vicinity of the outfall.”

Thames Water now says it has put matters right at a cost of only £30,000 but it seems to have taken a rather long time to do it. In the meantime it put anglers and boaters at risk from infection.

It also frankly was heaping a lot of shit (literally) on volunteers who are working to restore the rest of the Wendover Arm of the canal so that it can be used again by anglers and boaters. You can see their work here.

Yet put in context the £1m fine with Thames Water’s activities. The latest interim  half yearly figures from the company show it had a turnover of £1 billion, made a £200 million plus profit and paid out  interim dividends of £25m. So the £1 million fine is just 0.5 per cent of six months profit.

And if taken on a yearly basis – the last full year profit was £364m of which £169m was distributed in dividends. Investors include pension funds and the Chinese.

More interestingly the Thames Water chief executive Martin Baggs entire package well exceeds the £1m fine. The accounts for 2014-15 show his package in the company is over £2m for services to the group. His £460,000 salary is boosted by £53,000 in benefits including a £36,000 housing allowance, £15,000 for a company car and £2000 private medical insurance. He has long term bonuses worth over £1m with payouts of nearly £350,00 planned for the next three years. And he has a handsome £115,000 contribution to his pension.

Put all this together and perhaps £1m should be the minimum Thames should pay for any pollution they cause.Perhaps fines of £10m or a personal deduction from fat cat salaries should also be included.

The public may be pleased with the level of the fine – but for the company it seems but a  few drops from its bank balance.