The future of the UK's nuclear transport division

21 December 2020

The UK’s International Nuclear Services specialises in irradiated fuel management and transporting nuclear materials. Seth Kybrid speaks to NEI about the company’s activities and merger plans

Above: Crane at Cherbourg with Pacific Egret


Tell us about INS, and its main activities...

We help the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) clean up the UK nuclear legacy. Our role is making sure nuclear materials can be safely packaged and then we move them by sea.

To do that we own three specialist ships based in Barrow-in-Furness. They are operated by our subsidiary, Pacific Nuclear Transport Limited (PNTL), which is the world’s most experienced nuclear shipper.

One of our biggest jobs is returning vitrified waste from Sellafield back to countries of origin, such as Germany of Japan. We also do security-related moves for NDA and UK government.

As well as working for the NDA we’ve found a market for our skills providing nuclear transport solutions for UK and international customers. In just the last few years we‘ve provided end-to-end transport solutions for materials including plutonium, highly-enriched uranium, MOX fuel, high-level waste and spent fuel to and from countries like the USA, Japan, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland.

What we do is highly specialist and our people are experts in a range of disciplines — such as engineering, packaging, design, planning, security, safety, project management, international law, finance, stakeholder relations, emergency response and so much more.

The NDA announced earlier this year that it would bring its transport and logistics capabilities together. Can you tell us more about these plans...

NDA also owns Direct Rail Services (DRS) who are a specialist nuclear rail transporter. They do a range of things, most importantly moving the AGR spent fuel from EDF Energy’s AGR reactors to Sellafield.

Just like INS they have a great history and pride themselves on safe, secure and reliable delivery. They’ve even maintained their operations through the COVID crisis — which has been key to keeping the AGRs operating and producing energy for the country.

NDA wants to combine INS and DRS into one transport entity. The ambition is to create a world-leading transport organisation that can be a centre of excellence and a vital UK capability.

Our focus will always be nuclear cleanup in the UK, but by coming together we will be harnessing the expertise and skills of both organisations to support wider UK nuclear and transport strategic priorities, and increase our work with overseas governments.

The new organisation will go live in 2021 and it’s an exciting time for our people and our partners.

What are the motivations behind bringing the organisations together?

The UK is already a leader in nuclear transport. By coming together we’ll be greater than the sum of our parts.

Bringing together our rail, marine, and transport packaging, along with the operational, commercial, engineering, legal, and regulatory expertise will bring significant opportunities and benefits for our people, for the NDA, and for the wider international nuclear sector.

For our people it will make it easier to share learning and expertise and develop our careers across a larger, more diverse organisation. For NDA is will mean greater clarity on delivering the transport and logistics aspects of the UK decommissioning mission.

When making the strategic nuclear decisions, transport often doesn’t get considered early enough — that can lead to sub-optimal decisions. Through our new organisation we’ll be able to create a system that can develop an integrated plan for delivery through different modes of transport, using different packages and using the existing UK supply chain. It will mean we can better plan the investment in assets and skills, so the UK has the capabilities it requires for decades to come.

Beyond delivery of our mission we have a part to play supporting the industry supply chain. High quality transports are vital and as an industry we have a duty to be excellent at what we do. So, one of our broader aims is to advance the quality, technology and expertise of nuclear transport. This is something we’re passionate about. If we can help others increase the capacity for safe, secure and sustainable nuclear transport, then we should.

INS has a long and rich history. How have nuclear transportation and packaging services evolved over this period?

That’s right — we’ve been at the forefront of developing approaches to nuclear transportation and packaging for over 45 years.

Take shipping. The first generation of our specialist ships were pioneers. They operated from 1979 to 2010 and the design formed the basis of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) regulations for moving nuclear materials by sea. The second generation of vessels, currently in use by our subsidiary PNTL, adopted a design that builds on the flawless nuclear safety record and successful operation of the first generation.

Similarly, in packaging design and licensing — we’re always looking for ways we can grow our skills and expertise. I’m really excited about a new capability we’re currently growing in criticality and shielding. We’ve recognised that these skills are key — both to developing our own transport and package design business, and supporting the NDA mission to decommission the civil nuclear sites in the UK — so we’re building that in-house capability to support our aim to become a centre of transport and packaging expertise.

Innovation will be at the heart of the new transport organisation, and it’s our aim to not only keep pace with scientific and technological developments and the evolving sector landscape, but to be at the forefront of advancing the quality, technology and expertise of nuclear transportation.

What do you see as the main challenges facing the sector today; and how is INS helping to address these?

The transport of nuclear materials happens for important reasons — cleanup, security, safety, energy generation and to manage our nuclear legacy. But while these transports are necessary, they are one of the most complex activities in the nuclear value chain.

If I had to pinpoint one particular challenge it would be security. INS and DRS are both trusted with transporting some of the most sensitive nuclear materials in the world so it’s essential that people have confidence in our security capabilities. As the threat has evolved we have had to evolve too and grow our capabilities in areas like cyber-security and physical protection.

This is another area where we are always keen to lead by example and share our experiences with others. So, we’ve worked with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Kings College London and the UK Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to help maturing and developing nations strengthen their nuclear security and resilience through the delivery of training workshops, conferences and exercises.

How has INS and nuclear material transports been affected by COVID-19?

Well of course our first response was to keep our people safe — something that’s second nature to our organisation where safety is always a top priority. Initially some of our complex shipping operations were postponed as the first wave took hold, but we’ve been able to adapt and put in place “COVID-secure” measures since then that have enabled us to restart operations. In just the last few weeks we’ve completed a shipment of spent fuel from Sweden to the UK, and a high-profile shipment of vitrified waste to Germany.

In terms of rail, DRS has pulled out all the stops to make sure it has carried on delivering essential services throughout the outbreak — not just nuclear transports, but also the freight they carry to support other sectors like retail. So as demand for supermarket goods soared DRS ensured it continued to operate at full capacity — running some of their longest trains and heaviest loads. As well as keeping supermarkets stocked they’ve helped to keep the UK’s nuclear power stations running by taking spent nuclear fuel for safe processing, ensuring the country’s nuclear power stations could operate and the lights were kept on.

Looking further ahead, how might industry trends e.g. focus on Net Zero affect INS?

Safe and secure national and international transport of radioactive materials is essential to support [a range of work] — whether it’s decommissioning programmes, nuclear energy generation, or on behalf of a range of other industries like medicine, agriculture, research, manufacturing, and minerals.

We have to ensure that we’re flexible and adaptable enough to evolve with — and be ahead of — emerging trends in all these industries. The creation of a single transport organisation will make us better equipped to do that.

The increasing focus on Net Zero is a good example. We’re committed to supporting government net zero carbon commitments and on reducing wider greenhouse gas emissions.

We’ve already taken significant steps to minimise the impact of our activities on the environment. For example through the increased use of its state-of-the-art Class 88 locomotives — which can run on overhead electricity — DRS has reduced its CO2 emissions by 25% compared to last year. And we’re continually looking for ways to improve the sustainability of our shipping operations. Our vessels switched to using ultra low sulphur marine gas oil well before international regulations changed — significantly reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.

More generally NDA has asked the new organisation to develop the most effective way to deliver all future NDA group transport requirements. A key part of that will be to identify opportunities to reduce our carbon footprint, for example by combining transports, or by switching transport from one mode to another.

Author details: Seth Kybrid is managing director, International Nuclear Services (INS)

International Nuclear Services (INS) and Direct Rail Services (DRS) are planning to merge

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