Row over plans to reform groups at nuclear sites

New guidelines which campaigners say could benefit communities around nuclear sites have been boycotted by a UK Government nuclear agency.

Internal documents seen by The Ferret reveal that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has rejected proposed reforms because they had caused “a great deal of bad feeling”.

Guidelines aimed at making local meetings about safety at nuclear sites across the UK more transparent, accountable and representative were put forward in a nuclear industry report. 

The report condemned liaison groups at some sites for “poor practice” and for having “no accountability”. The nuclear industry must shed its reputation for being “secretive” by being “open and honest”, it said.

Campaigners criticised the NDA for trying to block the guidelines, which had “much to commend them”. At many nuclear site meetings dissenting voices were absent or marginalised, they said.

But the NDA, which supports more than half of nuclear site stakeholder groups, defended their independence. Local communities should decide how to run their meetings, not the nuclear industry, it said.

There are 29 licensed nuclear sites around the UK, six of them in Scotland. They include nuclear power stations operating and being decommissioned, nuclear submarine bases, waste and processing plants.

All of the sites have stakeholder or local liaison groups aimed at keeping local communities informed about events, including shutdowns, safety incidents and radiation leaks. But they differ greatly in how they are run.

Sixteen stakeholder groups at decommissioning sites are supported by the NDA, including Hunterston in North Ayrshire, Dounreay in Caithness and Chapelcross in Dumfries and Galloway. They have websites, publish their minutes and are open to the public. 

Four other groups are supported by the Ministry of Defence, including those at Faslane and Coulport on the Clyde and Rosyth in Fife. Only a few details of their make-up are in the public domain, and information about their meetings is scant.

The power company, EDF Energy, convenes local groups at three operating nuclear power stations, including Torness in East Lothian. Six other nuclear sites run by other companies and a college have varying arrangements.

Nuclear site stakeholder and local liaison groups

SiteActivitiesAgencies supporting local groups
Chapelcross, Dumfries and Gallowaydecommissioning nuclear stationNuclear Decommissioning Authority
Dounreay, Caithnessdecommissioning nuclear facilitiesNuclear Decommissioning Authority and Ministry of Defence
Faslane and Coulport, Argyll and Butenuclear submarine and bomb basesMinistry of Defence
Hunterston, North Ayrshiredecommissioning nuclear stationsNuclear Decommissioning Authority and EDF Energy
Rosyth dockyard, Fifenuclear submarine storageMinistry of Defence
Torness, East Lothianoperating nuclear stationEDF Energy
Aldermaston and Burghfield, Berkshirenuclear weaponsMinistry of Defence
Amersham, Buckinghamshiredecommissioning medical isotope plantGE Healthcare
Barrow dockyard, Cumbrianuclear submarine manufacturingBAE Systems
Berkeley, Gloucesterdecommissioning nuclear stationNuclear Decommissioning Authority
Bradwell, Essexdecommissioning nuclear stationNuclear Decommissioning Authority
Capenhurst, Cheshirenuclear processing plantUrenco
Devonport dockyard, Plymouthnuclear submarine baseMinistry of Defence
Dungeness, Kentdecommissioning nuclear stationNuclear Decommissioning Authority
Hartlepool, County Durhamoperating nuclear stationEDF Energy
Harwell, Oxfordshiredecommissioning nuclear facilityNuclear Decommissioning Authority
Heysham, Lancashireoperating nuclear stationEDF Energy
Hinkley Point, Somersetdecommissioning and operating nuclear stationsNuclear Decommissioning Authority and EDF Energy
Imperial College, Londondecommissioning research reactorImperial College
Lillyhall, Cumbriametal waste recyclingCyclife
Oldbury, Gloucestershiredecommissioning nuclear stationNuclear Decommissioning Authority
Ramsden Dock, Barrownuclear shipping terminalNuclear Decommissioning Authority
Raynesway, Derbyshirereactor manufacturingRolls-Royce
Sellafield, Calder Hall and Drigg, Cumbriadecommissioning nuclear plants, processing, waste storageNuclear Decommissioning Authority
Sizewell, Suffolkdecommissioning and operating nuclear stationsNuclear Decommissioning Authority and EDF Energy
Springfields, Prestonnuclear processing plantWestinghouse
Trawsfynydd, Gwynedddecommissioning nuclear stationNuclear Decommissioning Authority
Winfrith, Dorsetdecommissioning nuclear stationNuclear Decommissioning Authority
Wylfa, Angleseydecommissioning nuclear stationNuclear Decommissioning Authority
Sources: Office for Nuclear Regulation, Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and company websites.

In 2017 the 50-strong group of nuclear-free local authorities in the UK published a report questioning whether the stakeholder and local liaison groups were “fit for purpose”. It concluded that there was an “urgent need” to reform them.

This prompted the nuclear industry’s Safety Directors’ Forum, which brings together senior managers from all the civil and military nuclear sites, to commission a report. It was researched and written by the industry’s Young Nuclear Professionals’ Forum.

The resulting “Good Practice Guide” was circulated in November 2021. “Nuclear sites often have a reputation of being opaque, secretive and unwilling to engage with the public,” it said.

“This negative reputation is actively damaging, from open opposition to the site’s existence to a general lack of understanding. Active engagement is key to undoing this, the nuclear industry must be open and honest.”

The report argued that local liaison groups at several unidentified nuclear sites had “no accountability”. This included “no terms of reference being in place, no clear action management process, inadequate minute taking and infrequent meetings.”

It pointed out that while some meetings were open to the public, others were not. Some groups only invited “selected stakeholders” and “diversity and inclusion is not always encouraged”. 

Some of the groups didn’t have websites. “Meetings are not always accessible and, in some cases, not comprehensible due to the extensive use of acronyms, particularly for those who do not work in the nuclear industry,” the report added. 

The report recommended that the groups should all have websites, clear and published constitutions and a “diverse range of stakeholders”. There should be a co-chair independent of the industry and members of the public should be allowed to ask questions.

This publication continues to cause a great deal of bad feeling among the NDA’s independent site stakeholder groups.

John McNamara, Nuclear Decommissioning Authority

But correspondence released under freedom of information law has disclosed how the report has upset the NDA and some of the existing groups. “This publication continues to cause a great deal of bad feeling among the NDA’s independent site stakeholder groups (SSG),” wrote the NDA’s head of stakeholder engagement, John McNamara, on 15 November 2021.

He warned it was having “a detrimental effect” on NDA’s relationships with stakeholders. “The SSG Forum, which represents all SSG meetings at our sites, has unanimously decided not to take part in this report, or recognise its findings,” he added.

“As the party responsible for resourcing these meetings we support their independent right to make this decision.”

According to McNamara, the SSG Forum was unhappy that the report gave the impression that the forum supported nuclear industry “regulation” of community-owned meetings. “This is an extremely sensitive point which led to the creation of the SSG Forum in the first place,” he said.

McNamera then sent a circular to all SSG chairs and vice chairs disassociating the NDA and the SSG Forum from the guidelines. “The nuclear industry being seen to review the independent SSG meetings without their consent is not acceptable,” it said.

The nuclear-free group of local authorities (NFLA) called on the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to reconsider its boycott. “The NFLA is disappointed that neither the NDA nor the SSG Forum wishes to engage with the published draft guidelines from the Young Nuclear Professionals Forum,” said NFLA chair and Green councillor in Leeds, David Blackburn.

“The NFLA has made clear that, although in our view these guidelines contain much to commend them by way of good practice, they fall short of our own aspirations to improve accountability, democracy and inclusivity. We have made a number of additional recommendations to improve best practice across all site stakeholder groups.”

Rita Holmes, chair of the Hunterston Site Stakeholders Group but speaking in a personal capacity, pointed out that groups were set up to allow local communities to scrutinise nuclear sites and their emergency plans. To work, they needed members prepared to ask “searching questions”, she argued.

“This is more likely to happen if local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community council representatives are members. If SSGs are top-heavy with politically minded local authority representatives, or nuclear lobbyists, then there is no real scrutiny,” she told The Ferret.

“I do think that the regulators and site directors welcome rational challenge and constructive dialogue from members who are genuinely interested in safe generation and decommissioning. Too often the job of scrutiny is left unfulfilled through lack of challenge because NGOs are absent from some of the SSGs.”

Too often the job of scrutiny is left unfulfilled through lack of challenge.

Rita Holmes, Hunterston Site Stakeholders Group (in a person capacity)

Tor Justad, a campaigner with Highlands Against Nuclear Transport and a member of the Dounreay Stakeholder Group, expressed “concerns” about the group’s ability to effectively challenge proposals. “Most group members are directly linked to the site and rely on it for employment or support through grants,” he said.

“The format of the meetings, with often technical reports, makes it difficult for lay members and the public to question reports and offer alternative solutions. Criticisms of site operations are regarded as negative and not as supportive as expected.”

Justad described the lay-out of meetings as “daunting” and argued it deterred the public. “As the Dounreay Stakeholder Group is directly funded and administered by the NDA it is difficult for it to be fully independent,” he added.

“There are many changes that could be made to make the group more inclusive and effective, including more members who may be critical of the nuclear industry.”

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority defended site stakeholder groups as “independent” community meetings. “The community itself — and not the nuclear industry — nominates the chair and members of the meetings, and sets its own terms of reference,” said an NDA spokesperson.

“The meetings are open to the public and the media. The independent chairs of these meetings also agree a set of guidelines with the NDA which reflect this independence from the industry, but set expectations on how the industry should communicate and report progress or any other issues back to the community.”

The NDA’s role was purely to facilitate the meetings by funding them and providing administrative assistance, it stressed. It confirmed that the chairs of stakeholder groups’ decided not to take part in the review by the Nuclear Safety Directors’ Forum.

“The NDA supports their decision, and their view that local communities themselves should decide how they run their meetings,” the spokesperson added.

EDF Energy argued it had “positive relationships” with the communities around its nuclear power stations. “EDF has an open and transparent dialogue with its stakeholders at each of the sites it operates which stretches back many decades,” said a company spokesperson.

“Participation in groups like site stakeholder groups, which are sponsored by the NDA, and local community liaison groups are just part of a broad range of engagement activities we are involved in.”

The Ministry of Defence said that its nuclear sites had “routine engagements” with local stakeholders. “When managing stakeholder engagement, our aim is to maximise transparency while balancing the need to protect our capabilities from exploitation by potential adversaries,” added a spokesperson.

The nuclear industry Safety Directors’ Forum did not respond to requests to comment.

Report for nuclear industry Safety Directors’ Forum

Documents released by Nuclear Decommissioning Authority

Cover image thanks to iStock/deemac1. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

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