At the end of last month, John McKeown learned it would fall to him to initiate the dirtiest nuclear clean-up job in the UK the removal of 700cu3 m of highly radioactive debris from a 65m deep shaft at the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s site at Dounreay, Scotland.
The Government had approved the UKAEA’s recommendation that the waste be retrieved from the shaft for treatment and storage, and a project that is expected to take 25 years to complete was under way.
For the new UKAEA chief executive, the project is a ringing endorsement of the policy the authority has adopted since it was given the mandate to oversee the management and decommissioning of most of the country’s oldest nuclear facilities, an approach McKeown plans to continue over his tenure.
The key to it is the judicious use of contractors to secure value for the £130 140m of public money the UKAEA is spending on decomissioning work each year. This means specifying tasks so they can be put out to tender, and entails tapping in to worldwide contracting expertise. This expertise was crucial in devising the solution for the shaft and its contents, which were becoming an unacceptable environmental hazard.
Having worked for Scottish Nuclear and its predecessor the South of Scotland Electricity Board from 1973 to 1997, and being a member of the Government’s Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, McKeown knew the difficulties of the shaft.
As an adapted disposal facility for intermediate level waste, it had had numerous consignments of different radioactive materials fuel cladding, comtaminated equipment, sludges, even bits of irradiated fuel dumped in it from 1960 until the early 1970s.
In the early 1970s dumping stopped and the shaft was sealed. Then in May 1977 gases emitted by the decaying materials exploded. Emergency provision to vent the gases was made but it was clear a new solution would have to be found for the long term.
Initially, the only apparent solution was to secure the shaft and its disparate contents in situ, with grout and concrete. However, it would have been difficult to have persuaded the regulatory authorities that this arrangement would have been secure for the obligatory tens of thousands of years. ‘At the end of the day, we couldn’t see how we could make the case,’ says McKeown.
So the authority advertised in the European Commission Journal for contracting groups to come up with engineering proposals. ‘We wanted to tap into nuclear experience and offshore oil experience,’ explains McKeown.
The feedback provided the authority with a viable alternative to in-situ confinement. ‘They gave us evidence that we could retrieve the waste.’
McKeown sees the creation of British engineering and contracting expertise in nuclear decommissioning as an important aspect of the UKAEA’s remit. He points out that such knowhow will be highly exportable as the ‘one certainty is that decomissioning worldwide will grow as a market’ and says UK companies have made great strides. He cites the £55m fixed-price contract awarded to a predominantly British consortium to dismantle the Windscale Pile 1 at Sellafield. ‘That would have been unthinkable, absolutely unthinkable, 10 years ago.’
McKeown knows, however, he is operating in a field where there is no advantage in pushing competitive tendering to the limits. Neither the authority nor the taxpayer will derive any benefit from a contractor which discovers it cannot fulfil a cut-price bid. ‘What I want to make sure is that we take the lowest realistic price.’
He is also experienced enough to realise that not all the UKAEA’s appointments will prove to be success stories. ‘I’d be foolish if I said I was satisfied that none of these contracts will come in over time and cost.’
Nevertheless, the contractorisation policy has proved highly effective so far. Over the past three years, the UKAEA has shaved £400 £500m off the estimated total bill for its liabilities.
The figure now stands at £7.2bn, and McKeown considers it is part of his mission to reduce it further. ‘My objective is to reduce [the outstanding liability] by more than a pound for each pound spent.’
One way to reduce the cost of decommissioning projects is to defer them for decades to allow the radio-activity in the facilities to decay to the point where the decommissioning task becomes easier and cheaper.
In the taxpayers’ interest, McKeown feels it is right to prioritise projects in this way, with the proviso that there must be a worthwhile and demonstrable cost benefit if a problem is to be left for future generations to deal with. ‘It’s not acceptable to simply defer doing something.’
McKeown adds that deferral of projects is not an option if it would compromise the structural integrity of facilities or increase the potential for radioactive contamination. ‘If there is a safety or environmental imperative, we must react to that.’