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What Actually Happens When a Nuclear Power Station is Decommissioned?

24/10/2014
Decommissioning is a complex, cost and time-intensive procedure that requires skilled, experienced workers. It will become a recurring process in the UK over the next few decades as there are a number of power stations soon reaching the end of their lifecycle.

The complexity of decommissioning a nuclear power station has led to international research cooperation and is now defined internationally as “administrative and technical actions taken to allow the removal of some or all of the regulatory controls from a facility. This does not apply to a repository or to certain nuclear facilities used for mining and milling of radioactive materials, for which closure is used.” However, decommissioning a plant is not simply about removing radioactive waste; it also entails the consideration of the safety of the workers and the environmental and socioeconomic consequences of shutting the power station. Such is the thorough process of decommissioning, a site can often be returned to a ‘greenfield’ state, whereby the land conditions reflect the original area before a nuclear plant was constructed.

The UK has a number of power stations already being decommissioned, including Trawsfynydd, Hunterston and Hinkley Point A. Trawsfynydd’s power station is estimated to be fully decommissioned in 2083, having started the process in 1993 – a testament to the length of time required to safely and effectively complete the procedure.

What are the factors to consider when a power station reaches its end of purpose?

First, each country actively producing nuclear energy will have its own decommissioning strategy. Each one will cater for the following issues:

Radioactive Waste

This can be split into three categories: high level waste (HLW), intermediate level waste (ILW) and low level waste (LLW). None of these are suitable for simple (i.e. surface-level) disposal. HLW is the most common produce of nuclear power stations and demands an exacting standard of care in order to preserve the safety of citizens and the wider environment. Each type of radioactive waste must have its own disposal strategy, which will be tailored to each decommissioning project undertaken.

Safety of the Workers

At all times, the health and safety of those working on decommissioning projects is a top priority. Strict regulations are put in place to guarantee the safety of workers. For direct decommissioning processes (such as handling radioactive substances), airfed suits are used by competent, experienced workers who also have to pass a medical screening exam. Buddy systems are often adopted to ease workload and reduce overall risk.

Environment

Surface-level disposal has thankfully become increasingly rare. The UK currently safestores nuclear reactors, although the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is seeking a suitable site to build an underground repository, in a similar vein to France. This will store reprocessed nuclear waste about 500m below the ground in rock walls, encased in steel and concrete, known as entombment.

Socioeconomics

Power stations don’t necessarily have to be completely demolished during a decommissioning project. One example is Trawsfynydd in Snowdonia; there is an ongoing debate regarding whether the power plant should be knocked down after the reactors are removed, and the modernist design splits the local community. Often, a skilled workforce is left behind after a nuclear power station is closed which will require remediation, typically in the form of relocating. Other remediation methods include replacing the nuclear heat source in the power station with fossil-fuel and maintaining the plant’s operation in an altered capacity.

Who funds decommissioning projects?

Most countries – including the UK – utilise public bodies (operating independently of the government), tasked with managing decommissioning projects. Costs usually run into the hundreds of millions and, depending on the type of decommissioning, monitoring of radioactive waste will costs millions every year. However, hundreds of jobs are created during the process and many more people are employed on decommissioning projects than when a nuclear power plant is producing energy.

What is the future of decommissioning in the UK?

Cumulatively, there are hundreds of years of skilled labour required across the UK, with a new £7 billion contract drawn up by the NDA to have 12 nuclear reactors decommissioned. Not only will there be approximately 41,000 new jobs for the creation of new nuclear power stations, but hundreds, if not thousands, will be created due to the 12 soon-to-commence decommissioning projects – nuclear energy is going to be one of the most prosperous job markets in the UK. We have partnered with some of the biggest energy companies involved in nuclear energy and can offer prosperous contract and permanent roles in the field. The Sellafield nuclear power station – home to one of the largest decommissioning projects active today – is close to our dedicated Cumbria office, so we’re perfectly placed to assist those who want to work in the nuclear industry. There are opportunities for planners, engineers, administrators, managers and technical authors, amongst others. Experience in the nuclear sector is not always required as the huge increase in opportunities has led to a shortage of talent in the industry.

If you would like to talk to one of our expert recruiters about working in one of the world’s most pivotal energy sectors, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

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