Nuclear decommissioning in the UK is such an exciting space! Here is a whistle-stop tour of the work carried out by the UK decommissioning community in R&D and innovation, as well as its impact on the economy and local communities.
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, and is responsible for 17 sites across the UK.
The mission of the NDA and its agencies is to create a clean and safe environment for future generations.
Collaboration and Innovation
Collaboration and innovation are at the heart of the NDA estate, and the wider decommissioning community worldwide.
The nature of the projects across the UK decommissioning landscape has led to the development of innovative solutions, in collaboration with the UK supply chain and the international community.
The now-famous 'Spot' robotic dog from Boston Dynamics has been deployed multiple times across the NDA estate for exploration, data collection and radiation monitoring. It can climb stairs, avoid obstacles and move on rough terrains. Most recently, it was deployed at Dounreay, supported by Createc, the systems integrator for 'Spot'. Unmanned-Aerial-Vehicles (UAVs) were also seen at Sellafield. They are used to support routine operations for internal and external inspections, reducing the risk for operators working at height.
Robots are a great way (and sometimes the only way) to access hazardous areas, with potentially unknown radioactive materials and harmful radiation levels. The NDA collaborates with both industry and universities to translate innovative ideas into practical solutions, and foster research into future solutions.
The innovation programme Game Changers was set up to help find solutions for complex nuclear industry challenges. They provide a platform to connect challenge owners and solution providers across the UK nuclear industry, including decommissioning. The challenges are open to SMEs, universities, research organisations and large companies. You can find out more about the array of upcoming and past projects here.
The UK is a major player in the global decommissioning market, and UK companies are at the forefront of innovation and technology in this field.
In 2022, a collaboration involving Dounreay to design a robot for inspection of hazardous environments was listed in Time Magazine's top 200 innovations. Recently the NDA hosted the US Department of Energy (DoE) and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) to discuss how to effectively engage with stakeholders in the context of decommissioning and share best practice.
UK technologies are also being used in active sites outside the UK. A team from the University of Bristol accessed the New Safe Confinement and control room of the Chernobyl Reactor 4 to deploy specially designed radiation mapping and scanning sensors, as part of the EPSRC-funded Robotics and AI in Nuclear (RAIN) research consortium.
In Japan, international collaboration continues to support the decommissioning work at Fukushima Daiichi. Robots have been extensively used to stabilise the plant after the accident, and help investigate the state of the reactor buildings. The R&D work around robotics in Japan is led by the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning (IRID), which the UK contributes to as international advisors.
The UK Science, Innovation and Technology Committee recently called on the Government to develop and publish a Nuclear Strategic Plan. Their thorough evaluation of the state of the nuclear industry highlighted challenges as well as opportunities. Indeed, the NDA was praised for its world-leading expertise and was specifically mentioned as a great export opportunity for the UK.
Research and development for decommissioning contributes beyond its own sector. Robots will be used for the maintenance of fusion reactors. A test was conducted in 2021 at the Joint European Torus (JET) at the UKAEA site in Culham, and involved a robot entering the nuclear environment to scan for radiation.
Economic and Social Impact
Decommissioning is a long process, spanning over decades, transforming a former operating nuclear plant or waste disposal facility into a safe, clean space for future generations. This requires sustained investment, which benefits both the supply chain and the local areas. Sellafield is currently establishing a 15-year framework valued between £3.8bn and £4.6bn. Sellafield employs 11,000 people, supplemented by over 40,000 people from the supply chain. Opportunities for the supply chain span across a range of disciplines as part of large, complex projects, covering quality management, design and safety case work, construction, installation and testing, commissioning, maintenance, and management and technical support.
In Scotland, Dounreay directly employs approximately 1500 people. Its annual spend of some £200 million a year generates approximately 10% of the GDP of the North Highlands. The skills and enterprise it fosters are giving Scottish companies a platform to compete in the global decommissioning market.
Dounreay supports local community organisations and charities through the 'Dounreay Communities Fund'. Since 2016, it has helped many organisations across Caithness and North Sutherland and benefited people directly through small grants to local projects such as support groups, sports associations and schools, amongst several others.
Sellafield is also very involved in its neighbouring communities. In July 2023, a £460,000 collaboration delivered the Frizington Youth and Community Centre in West Cumbria which will be life-changing for the local community, hosting several key charities. Thanks to work undertaken at Sellafield, the Whitehaven Harbour also secured seven 'Seabins', which capture marine waste and is a local youth-led eco project. The press release highlighted that "each 'Seabin' can capture an estimated 1.5 tonnes of debris per year depending on weather and debris volumes which would mean up to 10.5 tonnes of debris being removed from Whitehaven harbour instead of flowing out to sea".
This short article only highlights a few of the amazing work carried out by the UK and international decommissioning community. If you'd like to find out more, sources are cited below.
General information about the NDA Estate was gathered from the following sources:
Copyright for pictures:
Decommissioning Nuclear Waste Partners - PIN for previously released information