Viewpoint: The benefits of sustainable decommissioning

08 March 2019

With the anticipated increase in decommissioning-related activities over the coming decades, significant challenges lie ahead. By viewing nuclear back-end management through a sustainability lens, a set of principles that offer tremendous benefits for a wide range of stakeholders emerges, writes Kristina Gillin, a principal consultant in nuclear waste and decommissioning at Lloyd's Register.

Kristina Gillin (Image: Lloyd's Register)

The majority of the world's nuclear power reactors were built in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Of the 623 reactors that, at some point, have been connected to the grid, 477 - or 77% - were built before 1990. Although life extension measures are taking place at many of these, the list of permanently shut down reactors is growing ever longer; consequently, the efforts associated with decommissioning nuclear facilities and managing the resulting wastes are clearly on the rise. At present, 173 reactors have been shut down permanently.

The anticipated increase in decommissioning-related activities is not unique to the nuclear sector. A similar age distribution among assets - and a corresponding increase in efforts required for decommissioning and waste management - can be seen in oil & gas and other heavy industries.

While the supply chain recognises the opportunities, the unprecedented scale of the efforts required to decommission all these assets translates into unprecedented challenges. This includes technical challenges, as well as challenges associated with governance, regulation, social licence, and staff recruitment and retention.

With the ramping up of decommissioning-related efforts both in the nuclear and other industries, now is the time to ask: How has it gone so far? What lessons have we learned? And what can be improved to ensure that the future challenges can be met?

The bigger picture

It is vital to recognise that decommissioning and waste management of any type of facility are part of a bigger picture: The shutting down of an industrial asset. And that this has disruptive consequences for surrounding communities. People will be worried about jobs, property values and the impact on the local economy. The identity and source of pride of whole communities may be at stake. There might also be concerns of noise, dust and other environmental impacts of decommissioning and waste handling.

These aspects are economic, social and environmental - not technical. Consequently, it is logical to view decommissioning from a sustainability perspective - as a complement to seeking engineering solutions to the technical challenges that lie ahead.

Within sustainable development, systems thinking is key. But unlike engineering, which deals with systems that are predictable and controllable, sustainable development involves complex adaptive systems.

To understand the nature of complex adaptive systems, giving some examples may help: The country you live in and the organisation you work for. Your home town, nearest park and family. You and your immune system. These systems are self-organising and constantly changing. They may operate at different scales but are interconnected and influence each other. They have feedback loops and tipping points. Their past will impact their future. And they are full of surprises.

When realising that the context of industrial decommissioning and waste management is a system with this degree of uncertainty, it becomes clear that traditional, linear approaches are insufficient. And that the uncertainties, instead, need to be embraced by adopting a holistic approach and applying resilience thinking - features that are integral to sustainable development.

Principles of sustainable decommissioning

So, what would a sustainable decommissioning approach look like in practice? Although each site and associated waste streams have unique prerequisites, a set of principles emerges when viewing decommissioning through a sustainability lens.

Being inclusive: Decisions regarding a site’s future will have impacts far beyond the fence line, so inviting surrounding community members and other external stakeholders into the decision making is key. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it will ensure that better decisions are made, since a wider range of ideas, perspectives and concerns will feed into the decision making. It will also build trust and adaptive capacity.

Applying integrated, long-term thinking: When a plant is nearing the end of commercial operation, some fundamental questions arise: How will the power be replaced? What about the jobs? How can impacts to surrounding communities be minimised? What will the site be used for in the future? Can some of the structures and materials be reused? And for those that cannot, how will the waste be managed? As the answers to these are highly intertwined, the questions need to be asked and answered in concert.

Viewing all parts as potential assets: While not everything may be reusable, the assumption at the onset should be that each and every part will be a valuable building block in a future use, either on or off the site. This includes buildings, systems, components, demolished materials, surrounding infrastructure, important habitats and, last but not least, people. In fact, repurposing of the whole site ought to be considered. It has already been demonstrated that this can be done successfully also on nuclear sites - both large (Greifswald, Germany) and small (Stockholm, Sweden). Not to mention, the countless examples of repurposed industrial assets around the world in non-nuclear sectors.

Creating a vision post-decommissioning: Rather than viewing the end point as release from regulatory control, it should be placed later, beyond decommissioning. By first creating a shared vision for the site post-decommissioning, internal and external stakeholders will have a common goal towards which to strive. And only once the future uses have been determined can the detailed planning begin - planning that no longer is about decommissioning but rather site transformation to implement the vision.

When taken together, the benefits of adopting these principles are tremendous: Less waste, shorter timelines, lower costs, and increased trust and adaptive capacity. As well, reduced risk of significant delays or dead-ends.
It is recognised that aspects of these principles have been adopted in several cases. Stakeholder engagement, reuse and recycling, and visionary exercises have become commonplace. But to truly reap the benefits, one needs to go even further and approach back-end management in a holistic, integrated manner - and that is where the principles above offer guidance.

That an integrated take on decommissioning and sustainable development has not emerged until now may seem surprising; sustainability has become pervasive in most other areas. But given that a large portion of the reactors was designed and built before the concept of sustainable development even existed, this is not surprising at all. However, just because a facility was built using thinking that preceded the existence of sustainable development does not mean that it should be decommissioned using the same - regardless of whether a nuclear or non-nuclear facility.

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