Looking through a sustainability lens

18 July 2018



Experience is showing that decommissioning nuclear reactors and managing the resulting wastes is rarely straightforward. Kristina Gillin explores the root causes and concludes that it is time to seek a transformative approach to nuclear back-end management.


GIVEN THE AGE DISTRIBUTION OF the world’s nuclear power fleet, there will be a significant increase in the rate of reactors coming off line to be decommissioned. Of the 614 reactors that were connected to the grid by end of 2017, 166 have been permanently shut down. Assuming a 40-year average operating life for those that remain, that number will more than double over the next 10-12 years.

On the cusp of this increase in nuclear decommissioning, it is important to pause and reflect: how has it gone so far? Are things likely to improve using current approaches? And if not, what is needed to create a sustainable decommissioning paradigm? 

Looking back

After half a century of ‘shutdown experience’, some trends are now obvious. The vast majority of shutdown reactors have yet to be dismantled. Spent fuel or other waste from those that have been dismantled have not gone far, but are stored nearby. New waste transports tend to attract protests and disposal facilities have become nearly impossible to implement. That is, the nuclear industry’s ambitious, detailed and well-meaning plans rarely come to fruition without, at best, decades-long delays.

The dynamic between the nuclear industry and public and environmental groups has turned into a stalemate. Regulators can get caught in the middle, while politicians either oppose or stay as far away as they can. For the media, the tensions generate spectacular news stories and there is no sign that the situation will change. This is clearly unsustainable.

What is the problem?

Although different definitions exist, decommissioning of a nuclear facility generally refers to the process between ceasing operation and releasing from regulatory control. As with construction, the decommissioning process is mostly approached as a traditional, linear engineering undertaking. But we need to bear in mind that decommissioning is just one aspect of a much bigger picture.

From a societal perspective, shutting down any major operation will have disruptive impacts. Jobs will be lost, revenue to local governments reduced - and for facilities the scale of nuclear power plants the identity of whole communities are even at stake. Adding to that, more radioactive and other wastes will be created and require storage, transport and disposal. The impacts of facility shutdowns are clearly economic, social and environmental – and emotional and political.

A technical approach is being used to solve a non-technical problem. That is the problem.

The bigger picture

If the overarching problem – nuclear back-end management – is not technical in nature, what is it? If viewed as a system, it displays unpredictable and non-linear behaviours. Its evolution is influenced by its history. Its parts are highly connected and too many to count. Simply put, it is a complex adaptive system, like an ecosystem, a city or our immune system.

Complex adaptive systems are self-organising and constantly changing. They have feedback loops, tipping points and emergent properties. Surprise is expected. When trying to manage a system with this level of uncertainty, is it any wonder that traditional, linear project management has a poor track record?

Instead, it would serve us well to view nuclear back-end management as sustainable development, which deals naturally with major uncertainty, solves interdisciplinary and long-term problems, and considers economic, social and environmental aspects. One particularly useful concept in sustainability research is resilience – the ability to deal with change and still develop. Another is the adaptive cycle: the accumulation of resources in a system (the fore loop) and their freeing up once the system collapses (the back loop).

The back loop is the part of the cycle during which there is most uncertainty, but the part with most potential for influencing the future system. It is a time of creativity and discovery and for being open to and exploring new connections. The back loop is nuclear back-end management in a nutshell.

Looking ahead

Once we recognise that nuclear back-end management is a complex adaptive system, it becomes clear that a new approach is needed. That is a holistic approach that starts by asking questions when a set of nuclear reactors is nearing the end of commercial operations. How will that power be replaced? And the jobs? How can impacts to surrounding communities be mitigated? What will the site be used for after decommissioning? Can some of the buildings, equipment and materials be reused? And for those that will become waste – how and where will they be managed?

In other words, asking central questions in concert and searching for integrated answers.

Of equal importance is to broaden the conversation and become inclusive. This does not mean merely sharing information or asking for input; it means inviting the public and other stakeholders into the decision-making. Making room at the table for those who will be affected by the difficult decisions being made is not only the right thing to do; it means that a broader spectrum of perspectives, knowledge, ideas and passions can be tapped into instead of decisions being made behind closed doors. That way a common, positive vision can be created, increasing resilience.  

Resilience thinking also reveals that nuclear decommissioning is not only about liabilities, but sheds light on the assets. The parts that are released when a system is undergoing collapse become valuable as building blocks in future systems. Examples in a nuclear facility include worker skills, habitats for threatened species, equipment, infrastructure, buildings and demolished materials. To value the physical structures and not automatically assume that they will all become waste also means moving upwards in the waste hierarchy and aiming towards more reuse and recycling and less disposal.

Not all sites have prerequisites for a high degree of reuse. But rather than assuming that decommissioning means that everything must be removed, the point is to start by identifying what is there and assessing how it could be of value for future uses, either on the site or elsewhere. Not only is focusing on reuse potential consistent with general societal trends but it also aligns with creative reuses of other industrial assets. If an aluminium plant can be turned into a high-end shopping centre, a Boeing 747 to a hostel, a railway station to a convention centre, rail lines to parks, oil rigs to reefs and fossil plants to science centres – could nuclear sites, with their wide range of assets, not be converted to new uses? In fact, we already know that they can. One former nuclear power site is now a natural gas generating station (Fort St Vrain, USA) and another an industrial park (Greifswald, Germany). A former facility in the weapons production process has become a nature preserve (Fernald, USA), and the rock cavern of a former research reactor has been repurposed to a venue for concerts, dance performances, media research and more (Stockholm, Sweden).

Transforming into a sustainable decommissioning paradigm will not be easy. It requires openness, willingness and the creativity of many. It entails not only accepting but embracing uncertainty. Trust must be built, collaboration is essential and surprise is guaranteed.

Engineering solutions will still be needed – as soon as a shared vision has been created and the future uses are ready to be planned, designed and implemented.

Is a transformative approach based on sustainability realistic? Compared with current approaches novel, collaborative thinking can hardly be less likely to succeed. Luckily, the fundamental argument from both the nuclear industry and those who oppose initiatives is the same: ensuring safety for future generations. There already is a common goal when seeking a transformative approach.

Imagine that the stalemate is gone and money ceases to be sunk into projects that are unlikely to succeed; where everyone’s opinions, fears and ideas are respected; where central questions are answered collaboratively; where regulators are no longer caught in the middle and politicians are expressing support; and where media is not reporting on tensions and delays but on collaboration and progress. Would that vision not be more exciting, interesting and rewarding?

How do we get there? Resilience thinking tells us that the exact path cannot be known, but the first step is easy – let’s start the conversation. 


Author information: Kristina Gillin, Principal consultant at Lloyd’s Register 

The adaptive cycle
Number of grid connections and permanent shutdowns
The site of Germany’s Greifswald nuclear plant has been repurposed as an industrial park
R1 reactor hall at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden is now used as a creative meeting space for various types of activities. Photo: Jann Lipka/KTH


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