Clean break for engineers

The decommissioning challenge will provide some exciting opportunities over the coming years. Helen Knight reports

The world’s nuclear reactors are showing their age. Almost 200 of the 434 nuclear reactors in operation worldwide are due to be retired by 2040, at a cost of more than $100 billion, according to the International Energy Agency.

In Europe alone, dozens of reactors are expected to be dismantled within the next decade, with all but one of the UK’s existing plants due to be closed down. A report published last year by Infiniti Research forecast that the nuclear decommissioning market in Europe would grow at a rate of 43.1 percent between 2014 and 2018.

All of these reactors must be safely cleaned up and decommissioned, a huge global effort that was made yet more pressing by the Fukushima disaster in Japan in March 2011, after which countries such as Germany and Switzerland announced they would be phasing out nuclear power altogether.

150 decommissioning projects are currently under way
150 decommissioning projects are currently under way

To add to the difficulties, only 10 reactors have been fully decommissioned so far, meaning considerable uncertainties remain about the total cost of the task ahead. In Germany, for example, there are concerns that the 36 billion euros the utility companies have set aside to clean up the country’s nuclear plants may not be enough, despite being the largest such sum in the world.

But of all the decommissioning projects planned or underway in Europe, none is more challenging than the task of cleaning up Sellafield.

Earlier this year Stephen Lovegrove, permanent secretary at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, told MPs of the Public Accounts Committee that it will take 120 years to clean up and decommission Sellafield, which he described as the most complex nuclear site in Europe. It is expected to cost around £70 billion to decommission all of the UK’s nuclear sites, of which £53 billion will be spent on Sellafield.

Sellafield has been operational since the 1940s, when it was established to produce nuclear material for the war effort, and later to meet civilian electricity demands. Some of the nuclear buildings at Sellafield that require dismantling are the oldest in Europe, while considerable amounts of hazardous waste are stored in aging ponds and silos around the site.

More than 80 buildings have already been demolished, and some 150 decommissioning projects are underway, directly involving 2000 employees. Engineers involved in these projects are working at the “extremes of engineering”, according to Sellafield, and must find answers to complex technical problems.

Design engineers working at either Sellafield itself or the company’s facility in Risley near Warrington are pioneering new techniques to ensure the decontamination and demolition projects are completed safely.

Ian Belger, head of profession for electrical control and instrumentation (EC&I) at Sellafield, said the company needs engineers who are excited by the challenge of working on projects of national importance. “Sellafield is doing a job on behalf of the whole UK,” he said.  “Collectively we’re doing something that’s vitally important.”

Design engineers at Sellafield or Risley could also be leading projects worth up to £250 million, he added.

Experience in the nuclear industry is not crucial, said Dave Stubbs, head of profession for mechanical design engineering at Sellafield. “We want to nurture a wide population of well qualified, chartered engineers,” he said.

The company is also looking for engineers capable of commissioning elements of its large decommissioning projects, each worth up to £300 million. This work could involve anything from commissioning new encapsulation plants designed to process nuclear waste, to significant new components to keep existing plants running, according to Roy Jones, head of profession for commissioning at Sellafield. “It’s absolutely a chance to be part of something monumental,” he said.

Sellafield is responsible for decommissioning the UK’s nuclear legacy, as well as fuel recycling and the management of low, high and intermediate level nuclear waste activities on behalf of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

The NDA’s estate now spends around £3.2 billion annually on decommissioning projects. Ben Hough, team leader of the power and nuclear team at Matchtech, said engineers with specific decommissioning experience are always in demand. “There are a number of on-going projects with the NDA that require support through natural attrition and peaks in project workloads,” he said. “We are seeing a number of major projects requiring suitably qualified engineers, predominately in the north-west, but also across the Magnox sites and at Dounreay, for example.”

In particular there is a high demand for EC&I engineers, safety case engineers, process, and mechanical design engineers, as well as radiological waste experts, Hough said.

This demand is likely to increase as the nuclear industry heads for a renaissance, with existing projects and new build plants on the horizon, creating plenty of opportunities, said Hough.

150 decommissioning projects are currently under way
150 decommissioning projects are currently under way

However, this will also create a challenge for companies in the nuclear sector in attracting experienced engineers to manage and lead projects, and finding young talent to develop through their training schemes, while at the same time retaining their existing staff, he said. “Our recent annual Confidence Index survey of engineers in the power and nuclear sector found that two thirds of engineers say they would consider transferring to another industry in the engineering sector, with renewables and oil and gas the most popular industries.“

Meanwhile a recent survey of companies and organisations involved in decommissioning by Nuclear Energy Insider found that 51.8 percent viewed a lack of trained and experienced staff as the biggest challenge for the sector. This was closely followed by a lack of accurate cost estimations for decommissioning projects at 42.1 percent.

As a result of these skills shortages, many companies in the nuclear industry looking to maintain their staffing levels may be hoping to target engineers from other sectors and train them internally, said Hough.

Another area of uncertainty within the nuclear decommissioning field is the likely site of the proposed geological storage site for higher activity radioactive waste. The government has yet to select a location for the underground site, which will be used to store extremely hazardous waste safely for millennia.

“Whilst it would be ideal for the geological storage sites to be based near an existing nuclear area, it is not essential,” said Hough. “The contract engineers in the market will move where the demands are.”

Whatever the ultimate decision on the site of the storage facility, with more and more nuclear sites due to be cleaned up over the next decade, opportunities for engineers in the decommissioning sector look set to grow across the country.