Sellafield Ltd has taken its “most significant stride ever” in the 100-year mission to clean up the UK’s most complex nuclear site, removing the entire bulk stocks of historic nuclear fuel from the Pile Fuel Storage Pond.
The milestone came after decommissioning teams lifted the final skip of “metal fuel” from the pond via a remote controlled process. Retrieval of the pond’s “canned fuel” inventory was successfully completed in October 2015.
The work means radioactivity levels at the 68-year-old pond have been cut by 70%, vastly reducing the risk it poses to people and environment, according to Sellafield.
Sellafield said that the event was the most visible sign yet of progress in the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s century long programme to clean-up the legacy of Britain’s early nuclear industry.
Removing the fuel
Operators removed the fuel from 12.2m away, working behind radiation shields and using cameras and well-rehearsed procedures.
The approach required a step-change in thinking at Sellafield as it necessitated bringing fuel skips up and out of the water and therefore being “unshielded” for a time.
Sellafield Ltd managing director Paul Foster said: “In order to achieve this we had to embrace new ways of working focusing on collaboration, removing barriers, fit for purpose solutions and embracing innovation.
“It is essential we embed this change of approach across Sellafield Ltd to ensure we build on the achievements at the pond and drive forward with decommissioning across the site.”
The removed fuel has now been transferred to a modern storage building at Sellafield where it can be held in a safer environment.
The company said that attention would now switch to clearing the remaining contents of the pond – chiefly made up of a radioactive sludge-type residue.
Sellafield Ltd managing director Paul Foster said: “This is a truly landmark moment in the decommissioning of Sellafield.
“Removing decades-old corroded fuel from an ageing facility and placing into modern containment makes Sellafield, and the whole of the UK, a far safer place.
“The enormity of the challenge cannot be underestimated – the pond was built with no design for how its contents would be removed. We have had to retro-fit an export process and then safely execute it in one of the most challenging environments imaginable.”
The facility is scheduled to be ready for dewatering in 2019 – which according to Sellafield is 21 years ahead of the original schedule date – it will then be fully decommissioned and demolished.
History of the pond
The pond played a pivotal role in the development of the UK’s original nuclear deterrent, which guaranteed Britain a seat at the global power table throughout the 20th century.
It was used to cool nuclear fuel rods after they had been burned in the old Windscale Pile reactors to create weapons material.
This was at the height of the Cold War in the 1940s and 50s when a global arms race developed amid simmering tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union.
Some of the fuel used in that military campaign had sat in the murky depths of the Pile Fuel Storage Pond ever since.
The pond also played a vital support role during Britain’s worst nuclear accident – the 1957 Windscale fire. Rods pushed through the core of the reactor by brave workers battling the blaze were later transferred to the pond for storage.
More than half a century on, Sellafield is now Europe’s biggest environmental restoration project.