Developed since the 1940s, the 4-sq-km complex has been a weapons-making center, the site of the world's first nuclear powerplant, and a fuel-recycling and waste-storage facility.

U.K. officials have slammed the management of the huge U.S.-led cleanup program at the Sellafield nuclear-waste site, located in northwest England, months after it was awarded a five-year contract extension.

The consortium, called Nuclear Management Partners Ltd. (NMP), "has failed to provide ... clear leadership, strong management and improved capabilities,” says Margaret Hodge, a member of Parliament who is chairwoman of its Public Accounts Committee, following an investigation into the estimated $115-billion Sellafield cleanup.

Despite its acknowledged patchy performance, the consortium secured a second five-year term in April 2013.

NMP acquired control of Sellafield Ltd., the site’s licensed operator, under an extendable contract first awarded in 2008. Led by San Francisco-based URS Corp., NMP also includes Paris-based AREVA N.C., Paris, and Amec plc., London.

For the work, the authority agreed to reimburse Sellafield Ltd. about $2.6 billion a year, from which NMP earned about $380 million in fees in the first five years. Sellafield Ltd. also awarded about 6% of its contracts to NMP members.

"We have seen big delays and huge cost overruns,” reports Hodge. She cites a cost hike related to storage facilities for Magnox fuel that rose 88%, to $1.2 billion, between March 2012 and September 2013. Another silo project has been pushed back six years, to 2023, she contends.

The committee also criticizes the consortium’s high turnover of executives and failure to train site staff adequately.

It claims NMP used three times more staff time from its member companies than the 50,000 hours planned for in work for Sellafield Ltd., the consortium-controlled unit that manages Sellafield-site decommissioning activities for NDA.

John Clarke, CEO of the U.K. government's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, acknowledges the disappointing performance at Sellafield but points out mitigating factors, noting the site is recognized as “the most challenging” because of its complexity, age and extent of radiological hazards.

However, Clarke says NDA will require “significant improvements” from NMP over the next five years.

NMP Chairman Thomas Zarges, who also is chairman of the energy-and-construction division at URS, agrees that the cleanup program's first five years were characterized by “a number of disappointments and areas for improvement,” along with “many successes."

He claims that Sellafield’s challenges are unprecedented, “with complexities exceeding any other operational or decommissioning nuclear site in the world."

Developed since the 1940s, the 4-sq-kilometer complex has been a weapons-making establishment, the site of the world’s first nuclear powerplant, and a fuel-recycling and waste-storage facility. 

About 240 of the site’s 1,400 buildings are nuclear-related.