The hunt is on for senior engineers who can rise to the challenge of safely decommissioning and dismantling the UK’s 12 Magnox nuclear reactors. Helen Knight reports.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when the UK’s Magnox nuclear reactors were first built, their developers had a simple plan for their eventual decommissioning.
The idea was to remove the fuel from each of the sites, and then simply cover the entire site with soil, creating a man-made hill at each location.
Since then, health and safety standards have become somewhat more stringent, and the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is now faced with the significant task of safely decommissioning and completely dismantling each of the Magnox sites.
There are 12 Magnox sites across the Magnox estate, including 10 generating plants and two research centres. The name Magnox comes from the magnesium-aluminium alloy used to clad the fuel rods inside the gas-cooled reactors.
In July 2018 the NDA announced that Magnox would become a subsidiary of the NDA organisation from September 2019. The decision followed an announcement in 2017 that the NDA was terminating its contract with Cavendish Fluor Partnership to decommission the Magnox sites.
As a result of this decision, the NDA is now looking to recruit engineers to succeed the senior leadership team at Magnox.
The team will be responsible for managing the safe, secure and environmentally-compliant decommissioning of each of the Magnox sites, including Bradwell in Essex, Dungeness A in Kent, Sizewell A in Suffolk, and Wylfa in Anglesey.
All but one of the generators have now had their fuel removed, with the remaining site due to be completed by the end of next year.
Decommissioning a nuclear site is obviously no small task. Each generating site contains two large-scale reactors and their various support services. There are also turbine halls, containing multiple electricity-generating turbines.
While most of the turbine halls have already undergone some degree of decommissioning, they all now need to be dismantled, alongside the nuclear reactors themselves, according to Nigel Lowe, Head of Programmes, Magnox Transition, at NDA.
What’s more, all but one of the Magnox sites contain a cooling pond, used to reduce the temperature of nuclear fuel removed from the reactor.
Indeed, work to drain a million gallons of water and clear over 10 tonnes of equipment from the fuel storage pond at the Hunterston A site, the largest pond in the Magnox estate, was recently completed.
The team at the site pioneered new techniques such as decontaminating the pond walls using ultra-high pressure water jetting, and “concrete shaving” on some of the surfaces.
A new water treatment system was installed to process the radioactively contaminated water. The project also pioneered the use of a floating pontoon on the pond water surface, which workers were able to safely walk across to decontaminate the pond walls.
“These sites are very significant, in terms of both their size and the very difficult work that needs to be done,” Lowe said. “They typically employed up to 1000 people at the peak of their generating period, and there are now a couple of hundred people on each site.”
Some of the decommissioning and dismantling work will be carried out over the next five to ten years, while some will be undertaken over a much longer period of 70 to 100 years, in order to allow the radiation levels in the reactors to naturally decay, said Lowe.
During this time the site will be maintained in a passively safe and secure state.
“The top priority for all of the sites is safe, secure and environmentally compliant operation,” Lowe said. “There is then the challenge of getting the most out of ageing assets, or assets that are coming to the end of their economic life,” he said.
These sites are very significant, in terms of both their size and the very difficult work that needs to be done
So, for example, a typical question facing the senior leadership team might be how much to spend maintaining a crane built into the reactor building, when not investing in it would mean it may not work when it is needed, but it will only need to be operational for a few more months.
“These are the sort of day-to-day challenges that the leadership team face, and they will have to decide how they do it all in a safe, secure and environmentally-compliant way, to get the best out of those ageing assets,” said Lowe.
At times it may even be necessary to build new infrastructure, in order to dismantle the old, he said.
The NDA are looking to recruit 37 new leadership team members, to fill a range of positions from managing director down to senior project managers, and including roles outside engineering such as finance director and director of human resources. They are interested in hearing from engineers and managers of all disciplines, said Lowe.
“We are looking for all types of engineers, because we have all types of engineering problems,” he said. “It is not so much the engineering discipline that is important to us, it is the analytical programme and project management capabilities of people who have come up through an engineering route.”
“Experience is the most important factor of all,” he said. “We are looking for experienced people who can apply their skills in the interests of the taxpayer.”
Skills gained in any area of industry are relevant to the work, and not exclusively those from the nuclear sector
The team will be involved in all aspects of nuclear decommissioning, from putting forward the business case, planning how the work should be done, designing the programme, selecting the technology, and then seeing the project through to completion.
“Skills gained in any area of industry are relevant to the work, and not exclusively those from the nuclear sector,” said Lowe. “That is because the roles being recruited for are not those that require subject experts, but engineers with portable management skills.”
“We are looking for skills from across industry and commerce,” he said. “There are advantages to getting fresh thinking from other industrial sectors to take a look at our problems.”
“Engineers joining the team will any case be given industry-specific training where needed, as well as an extensive team-building and collaborative-working programme,” he said.
“The new recruits will be succeeding a previous senior leadership team made up of members from two private companies. The team is likely to include a range of people from a large and diverse background, and how they work together will be extremely important,” said Lowe.
“Team-building and working together, all of those training opportunities will be critical, as well as the nuclear-specific training, if that is necessary,” he said.
Historically, anyone joining an organisation like Magnox would expect to spend the rest of their working life there. Now though, the organisation is keen to open up longer-term opportunities for its staff across the NDA estate.
“So engineers joining the organisation might start out at Magnox, but could ultimately find themselves working at Sellafield or Dounreay if that worked for them,” said Lowe.
Finally, Lowe urges even those engineers who are against nuclear power on principal, to consider a career in decommissioning.
“Whether somebody is pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear, decommissioning ticks boxes in both camps,” he said. “If you are pro-nuclear it is part and parcel of the life-cycle, and if you are anti-nuclear you are dealing with a significant hazard, and in so doing making the place better for future generations.”