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Preparing for the clean up

Cover story - Nuclear decommissioning has always been on the fringes of construction.But a new decommissioning client is about to change all that. Mark Hansford and Andrew Mylius report.

On 1 April a major new construction industry client will be born.

With £48bn - edging £50bn - to spend over the next 40 years, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) looks set to deliver the construction industry a substantial future workload.

But the scale of work to be done means the industry can expect a big chunk of that to be pumped into pretty urgent clean-up projects. Over 50 years the nuclear industry has created a frightening legacy of defunct, decaying and increasingly decrepit reactors, research laboratories, fuel manufacturing and reprocessing plants, fuel storage ponds and waste disposal silos.

The challenge is without doubt immense. The optimism of the technology in the early years of the nuclear industry and the pressing demand for cheap energy and Cold War munitions materials meant nobody really considered the eventual closing down and dismantling of the new, experimental infrastructure being built. And nobody paid too much attention to short-cuts or design changes during construction, or to the environmental concerns of future generations.

The result has left the nuclear industry's modern day custodians with some ticklish clean-up challenges.

'The NDA has been set up [by the government] to be an organisation whose prime responsibility is to decommission UK civil nuclear sites, ' explains its chairman Sir Anthony Cleaver. 'Historically neither BNFL [British Nuclear Fuels] or UKAEA [UK Atomic Energy Authority] had decommissioning as prime responsibilities, and the country needed an organisation dedicated to that task.' NDA assumes ownership of all BNFL and UKAEA sites (see map) in eight days time. Its precursor, the Department of Trade & Industry's Liabilities Management Unit, had already drafted in US firm Bechtel to help assay the UK's sprawling civil nuclear estate - 20 sites in all.

Although NDA is still gathering detail on the sites for which it has assumed responsibility, this work will give it a clear enough picture to publish a set of broad-brush life cycle baseline plans in June, setting out the status quo of each site and its decommissioning objectives.

'For the first time there's a nationally unified approach to decommissioning, ' explains Cleaver. He believes this to be a world first and an incredibly powerful tool which describes similar conditions and challenges at different sites in the same way.

'When it comes to carrying out work, it'll be possible to see how the same problems are being tackled in different places, and to monitor progress. If a project is going well in one place and badly at another, we'll be able to ask why, ' he adds.

From these life cycle baseline plans, NDA and contractors appointed to look after its individual sites will be able to draw up more detailed programmes of work. And in Cleaver's view, this process is essentially a simple task.

'You have to tackle the areas of hazard first, ' he says.

'Sellafield and Dounreay are big sites and it's not surprising that they contain particular hazards.

Common sense suggests that's where you concentrate effort.' His general principle is to crack on with work as fast as possible, provided there is no safety, environmental or socioeconomic barrier. It is known, for example, that accelerating work at Sellafield might risk increasing emissions into the environment, so agreement from the Environment Agency would have to be sought first.

But part of NDA's remit is to make the flow of work arising from decommissioning as smooth as possible to minimise peaks and troughs in the employment market. By the same token, he is looking to bring some decommissioning forward to avert job losses when generating activities cease at some of his sites.

The NDA has been asked by the Department of Trade & Industry and the Treasury to complete 10% of the total decommissioning job by 2010.

Present incumbents for the nuclear sites, UKAEA and BNFL, already have much of this work in train. But Cleaver hopes that working under new incentivised contracts both organisations will be spurred to achieve targets faster and more efficiently than they might otherwise have done.

Although NDA has assumed ownership of all UK civil nuclear sites, UKAEA and BNFL will continue to run them on a day to day basis until the site management licenses are put out to tender. NDA is under orders to bid for 50% of the sites by 2008, and Cleaver says the remaining 50% will follow within three years. He hopes for stiff international competition.

Details are yet to be screwed down, but Cleaver expects sites to be bundled together.

Nationwide he anticipates there will be no more than three site management, or Tier One, contractors.

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