THE decommissioning of Harwell's former nuclear research station has been mired in controversy after a High Court judge ruled the job had been awarded to the wrong company.

The UK's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is facing potential damages in the hundreds of millions after Justice Peter Fraser ruled it had awarded the £7bn contract for 12 nuclear sites, including Harwell's former Atomic Energy Research Establishment, to the wrong group.

Decommissioning of the former Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Harwell has been underway since it stopped operation in the 1990s.

The judge said the NDA "fudged" the tender process to award the contract to engineering firm Babcock and Texas-based Fluor, calling themselves the Cavendish Fluor Partnership.

He said that even by by the authority's own standards the coalition should have been disqualified.

The judge did not speculate about why the NDA had "fudged" the contract tendering process.

He ruled that the contract should have gone to Energy Solutions EU Ltd, which had already been managing the sites for 14 years, and had also bid for the contract.

It was that company which brought the legal action when it lost out on the deal.

Energy Solutions is now claiming damages up to £200m which, if successful, will have to be paid by the Government – UK taxpayers' money.

Despite all that, the NDA has no immediate plans to take the contract away from Cavendish Fluor and is planning to appeal against the High Court ruling.

With that appeal potentially pending, the NDA would not speculate about what effect any of this could have on the decommissioning of Harwell.

Of 14 reactors which once operated at the site, only three remain and the NDA says "near-term decommissioning" of these reactors is complete and they are now in a "dormant phase".

However the remaining clean-up work at the site will continue for another 50 years.

Former employee Andrew Lewcock, from Wantage, said he was shocked by the findings and the "injustice in the contract award decision".

He said: "To read that the winning bidder should, according to the NDA's own published scoring rules, have been disqualified was astounding.

"These bids for Government work are long, difficult and costly for all concerned: at least you expect a fair and even-handed running of the competition by the responsible government body. What went wrong at the NDA?"

An Energy Solutions spokesperson said the High Court judgement showed that the NDA made "fundamental errors" in how they evaluated the two bids.

He added: "To ensure the best companies deliver the best value for the taxpayer there must be fair competition consistent with the designated process. When this does not take place companies will not invest in competitions and ultimately the taxpayer will pay more."