In praise of being ordinary29 October 1999
Nuclear decommissioning is not “dangerous and exciting”. It is familiar.
In common with many people I have lived in fear of being ordinary. I have wanted to stand out from the crowd and to be unusual in a way that would gain respect in both my personal and my professional life. I realise now this was a terrible, arrogant weakness and not desirable at all! I now want to be ordinary; and this paper is an attempt to explain why.
One of the problems with becoming ordinary is my job. I have spent 30 years in the nuclear industry, the last 10 of them entirely in the field of radioactive waste management and decommissioning. Whilst nuclear technology does not feature in the public’s list of top concerns, if you ask directly, these subjects cause anxiety. People think it is all terribly dangerous and exciting. While I enjoy my job it is neither dangerous nor exciting.
Let me make the case for ordinariness. My role now is to help take the historic legacy that UKAEA has on its sites, and managing it appropriately. UKAEA’s primary interest is to deal with the decommissioning, waste management and contaminated land issues that we have on these sites and restore them to alternative use. Our intention is that the sites are used as high quality business parks or for housing, fully in line with the Government’s desire to use brown field sites for development.
On some of our sites we do have unusual issues which will require innovative approaches, but for the most part we know how to do this – there is no unknown technology. We know we have to do this safely, with care for the environment and with due prudence in our call on the public purse. But we have done it all before. I want to get on with this quietly, adding real value to the communities in which our sites are situated, just like lots of other industries with redundant facilities.
The following are case studies of decommissioning different UKAEA facilities:
• Fuel fabrication plant. The A52 plutonium handling facility at Winfrith was commissioned in 1963. In operation it was used to produce plutonium fuels and it carried out a wide range of plutonium handling tasks including work on wastes. More than 10 t of plutonium has been processed through the Winfrith facility during its lifetime.
The facility has since been used to develop decommissioning techniques. The dismantling of the gloveboxes started around 1992. Over a three-year period all the remaining plutonium glove boxes were dismantled/decommissioned. The boxes and their contents were size-reduced and packed into drums for storage as PCM waste.
The final phase started with the cleanup of the remaining items inside, such as the pressurised suit area, the drains and the ventilation plant and ducting. The building was eventually declassified and demolished. This required considerable assurance monitoring. Some of the demolition waste was used to backfill the site and the rest was disposed of off-site.
• Reprocessing facility. Building 351 was constructed in 1951 and was one of the tallest buildings on the Harwell site, with seven floors. It was built as a chemical engineering R&D facility for radioactive work, particularly for liquid processes. There were two small zero energy homogeneous aqueous reactors, and work included vitrification of high level liquid waste using the FINGAL process, and solvent extraction.
Decommissioning commenced in 1990 before all work had ceased. The building closed in 1993 and was finally demolished in 1997. Considerable time was spent on developing clearance routes; decontamination technology did not always succeed in declassifying waste but most material could be free-released. The building was clad with asbestos panels, which were removed and disposed of as asbestos waste.
Demolition had to be carried out with minimal vibration and a particular issue was that the building was only 11 metres from the site fence.
• Power reactors. The Windscale Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor\ was the prototype for the AGR stations. Following its closure, decommissioning work started and in due course it was decided to dismantle the plant and the core itself, as a European demonstration project. This was to prove that decommissioning is feasible and to provide information to assist in planning the decommissioning of the many carbon dioxide cooled reactors in the UK.
After closure all the fuel was removed. The early work also included the removal of as much redundant non-active plant as possible. The turbine was removed and sold. The cooling towers were demolished.
New facilities have been built, including a large waste store and a waste management facility where the activity of all wastes will be determined prior to disposal of that waste for which there is a disposal route, and to store ILW.
The refuelling machine was dismantled and sent for disposal. The top dome of the reactor was removed, reduced and disposed of as LLW. Special tools were developed to cut the many pipes going through the top dome. After trials to see if the heat exchangers could be decontaminated it was decided that the four exchangers should be removed in one piece and transported by road to Drigg. Each exchanger weighed about 300 t. This operation was very successful. Currently there is work on the preparation for the dismantling of the hot-box, the core structure and the pressure vessel. The plans for dealing with the bioshield have yet to be agreed. The end point of the currently approved programmes will leave the bioshield still in place.
• Site restoration. Can UKAEA achieve its present primary purpose, to restore its sites and develop them for alternative use? Again, that has already been done.
At our former Culcheth site UKAEA previously had an extensive post irradiation examination (PIE) facility comprising lead cells, cavelines, metallgraphic facilities, radioactive materials stores, effluent facilities etc.
The facility was closed in mid-1989. By April 1991 it had been decommissioned, demolished and the site cleared of radioactivity to the satisfaction of the regulator. The photograph on page 30 shows how the site was re-used. This, or something like it, is our definition of the finishing line for our other UKAEA sites.
It is clear from these examples, and others in the international nuclear industry, that there is no new ground to be broken. Every facility will need to be done with care and will be a bit different, but it has all been done before.
Are we Unusual? No
The financial liabilities associated with radwaste management and decommissioning often attracts criticism. I am sure a comparison with other industries would be worthwhile, not to be disparaging about what others do but to set ourselves in context.
The coal industry, for example, has significant liabilities. Following privatisation in 1994 the residual British Coal Corporation reported in its accounts for 1994-95 £2.1 billion of liabilities (some of which will be a provision against medical claims rather than physical damage or restoration works).
The oil and gas industry is another example. As at 31 December 1996, BP’s decommissioning and environmental restoration provisions exceeded £2 billion. Nor were they alone. The Financial Times reported decommissioning cost estimates for oil and gas platforms in the North Sea at £8.7 billion.
Regrettably for those of us who want to be special we are, in fact, ordinary. Our waste management and decommissioning liabilities amount to a number of billions of pounds, not unlike many other industries.
Although direct comparison of the toxicity of radioactive wastes and other toxic wastes is not easy, it is clear that our materials are no more toxic than many of those produced by other industries2.
In a fascinating paper by Little et al 3, the authors compare the treatment of hazardous waste with radioactive waste disposal. They conclude hazardous wastes have poorer waste stream characterisation; poorer definition of impacts on humans; that regulations on transport are behind those for the radioactive waste industry; that quantitative consideration of pollution of the environment and harm to human health has been limited; and that quantitative consideration of long term repository post closure impacts has been absent.
The hazardous waste industry is only slowly catching up with the high standards and practices that have existed in the nuclear industry for many years. The nuclear industry has set responsible standards for care and control, yet this is not how it is portrayed in the media, nor perceived by the public.
The quantities of radioactive waste produced by the nuclear industry are often portrayed as very large. However, in comparison with other wastes the volumes are tiny4. Further, decommissioning wastes produce the largest volumes and much of this is only mildly radioactive. Meanwhile, the quantity of concentrated naturally occurring radioactive materials is indeed very large. Because of this it is being treated by the legislators as somehow requiring less care in disposal than wastes from the nuclear industry5. This is scientific nonsense.
For the relatively low-level wastes that are produced in significant quantities from decommissioning this is an issue that matters to us. Please can we have ordinary radioactivity like other industries and have our wastes treated by the same rules?
It is time the nuclear industry became ordinary and I with it. I believe we are partly to blame for our special status. To feed our egos we like to present what we do as especially clever or especially difficult. But it has all been done before, and I do not believe we should continue to project this image.
Let us do the job exceptionally well, but let us do it in an ordinary industry.
|Disclaimer and acknowledgements|
|This paper is clearly intended as a personal perspective. The contentious views expressed here are those of the author and should not be construed as representing the position of UKAEA. 1. Decommissioning update; the view at the end of the line. S C Gordelier, BNES/BNIF Nuclear Congress, Royal Lancaster Hotel, London 3-4 December 1997. Also published in Nuclear Energy, 1997, 36, No 3, June 185-195 2. The Packaging of Intermediate Level and Low Level radioactive Wastes. Proceedings of BNES, Radioactive Waste Management, London, 1984, p17. 3. Little RN, Maul PR, Smith GM and Towler PA. A comparison of hazardous and solid radioactive waste treatment and disposal. Energy and the Environment, 5, No. 3, 1994 pp225-275. 4. Radioactive Waste Management and Decommissioning Neither the Achilles Heel nor the Aegean Stables, S C Gordelier, The Nuclear Engineer, Jan/Feb 1994. 5. European Commission/KEMA/Siempelkamp. Proceedings of the NORM II Second International Symposium, November 10-13, 1998, Krefeld, Germany.|