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Computer generated metallic atomic structure model

The benefits of a sustainable decommissioning approach.

LR’s Kristina Gillin argues that decommissioning – both in the nuclear and non-nuclear industries – should be approached as a sustainability issue, as a complement to resolving the technical challenges that lie ahead.

Of the 623 nuclear power 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.

The story so far

With the ramping up of decommission-related efforts, 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?

It is vital to recognize 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.

Taking a sustainable approach

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
  • Applying integrated, long-term thinking
  • Viewing all parts as potential assets
  • Creating a vision post-decommissioning

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 recognized 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.

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.

This is a summary of an article published by World Nuclear News on March 8, 2019, presenting the views of Lloyd's Register's Kristina Gillin, Principal Consultant in Nuclear Waste and Decommissioning. Read the complete article.

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