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Government’s ‘laissez-faire’ approach to nuclear safety behind drop in inspections

The average number of inspections at UK nuclear facilities has plunged by a fifth in recent years despite a significant rise in the number of security incidents over the same period, official figures show.

The “unacceptable” numbers have prompted nuclear safety experts to warn that the Government has taken a “laissez-faire” approach to nuclear power inspection.

According to data from the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), between 2015 and 2019 there were an average of 194 security inspections per year, a figure that dropped to 153 per year between 2020 and 2023 – a decline of 20 per cent.

This is despite a dramatic rise in the average number of major security incidents over the same period, with 531 such incidents per year between 2015 and 2019, rising to 771 between 2020 and 2023 – an increase of 45 per cent.

Security incidents reported to the ONR are both physical and cyber, with protesters and individuals gaining unauthorised access to the sites as well as hostile states targeting the UK’s nuclear infrastructure.

In December, it was revealed that cyber groups linked to Russia and China had hacked into the Sellafield site in Cumbria, prompting fears that sensitive information around how Sellafield moves radioactive waste may have been compromised.

It follows warnings from the National Cyber Security Centre of the heightened threat of “state-aligned groups against western critical national infrastructure” linked to Russia, including the UK’s nuclear power stations.

The National Risk Register, a government document which assesses “the most serious risks facing the UK”, recently highlighted the danger of both conventional and cyber attacks on UK civil nuclear infrastructure.

Nuclear safety experts said the drop in inspections coincided with the Covid pandemic that allowed for “at distance” virtual inspections, which have continued creating more “lax nuclear regulation”.

The overall number of inspections has fallen by 30 per cent since 2015, when there were 240 inspections, compared to 2023 when 153 checks were carried out.

Dr Paul Dorfman, the chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group and a former secretary of the government’s committee examining radiation risks of internal emitters (Cerrie), told i: “Covid allowed ONR to ramp ‘at-distance virtual inspection’. This is a problem because ONR needs to be in close, on-site touch with nuclear facilities to get a good view on what’s really going on – and they seem to be carrying on this ‘arms’-length’ inspection regime post-Covid.

“Basically, it looks like the ONR’s nuclear inspections are being hit by the current Govternment’s ‘laissez faire’ attitude – hence we seem to be seeing more lax nuclear regulation.”

He added: “This is a problem as there’s a high number of civil nuclear security incidents reported, whilst declining number of ONR security inspections – unacceptable as it means a decrease in safety and security – and nuclear can be a very risky business.”

The numbers emerged from a parliamentary question submitted to energy minister Andrew Bowie back in March but have only now surfaced during the election campaign.

It comes as Rishi Sunak visited Sizewell B nuclear power station on the campaign trail on Wednesday.

The Prime Minister toured the cavernous turbine hall, where steam heated by the nuclear reactor is used to generate electricity.

Mr Sunak later met with apprentices in a simulation room alongside Conservative former minister Therese Coffey, the candidate for the Suffolk Coastal constituency.

“What’s an example of something that might go wrong?” Mr Sunak asked the apprentices after twisting a button which simulates turning on a cooling pump.

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