The former boss of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority says a high-profile Government scrutiny committee should focus on better understanding the challenges dealing with the UK’s nuclear legacy rather than scoring points.

In a second exclusive interview with in-Cumbria, John Clarke says he believes it was right to be held to account for the NDA’s billions of pounds-worth of spend, the committee’s approach to tackling the complex challenges dealing with the UK’s nuclear waste were often oversimplified.

Mr Clarke faced several grillings from the PAC on the public money being spent at the NDA’s 17 sites across the UK – including the biggest and most complex at Sellafield in West Cumbria – during his five-year spell as chief executive.

“Absolutely, we should be held to account on whether we are spending public money wisely and getting the results we should,” says Mr Clarke, who spent a decade working for the NDA.
“A lot of what I was asked by the PAC was about that, but then it can stray over in to a bit of theatre and occasionally flow over in to pantomime. 

“It should actually be about understanding what is happening rather than scoring points.”

While Mr Clarke admitted that there was no doubt some NDA projects had overrun and seen cost increases due to poor performance, politicians needed to appreciate many of the projects needed to keep the sites, and the public, safe were a “journey in to the unknown.”

“I think the vast majority of cost increases and schedule slippages are down to the fact that you’re setting out to undertake a unique project,” he said.

“Pretty much everything at Sellafield is a one-off and there is a lot of uncertainty. You can set off on a project down one route but later have to turn back and start again.

“Some would say you’ve wasted that money because you haven’t achieved anything, but I would say you have – you now have knowledge you didn’t have before.

“It may turn out that there is a better route, but there’s no way of knowing that when you start.

“That’s a difficult thing to get across to politicians, who will say you could have built a hospital for that. 

“I absolutely get that, but we know how to build hospitals. We’ve built loads of them.”

Mr Clarke added there were political difficulties when forecasting costs for unique projects using The Treasury Green Book, which offers guidance on how to appraise, monitor and evaluate projects.

“It says that when you’re doing a one-off you should have at least 100 per cent uncertainty on your estimates,” he said.

“If you think it is going to cost £500 million then you put a £1 billion range on that. But the Government don’t like it when you say that, even when the Green Book tells you to do it.

“Big, complex projects often go over budget and schedule, I think largely because when they’re getting approved the people who approve them skin you. They take out contingency and uncertainty to get to an acceptable number.

“But name me a big infrastructure project that hasn’t overspent or overrun. They are few and far between.”

In his first interview with in-Cumbria Mr Clarke accused the Government of being short-sighted for not investing in NuGen’s Moorside nuclear power station plans.

The project was left in tatters in November when Toshiba decided to wind up NuGen having failed to make significant progress on securing a buyer to take the £15bn project forward – which would have generated six per cent of the UK’s energy needs and created thousands of jobs.

Business leaders, industry chiefs, politicians and academics all made strong calls for the Government to invest in NuGen, which is set to disappear at the end of January, to keep the project alive.