Sunday, March 05, 2006

US to clean up on UK nuclear mess

The Observer Business US to clean up on UK nuclear mess

British companies are short of expertise in the controversial business of atomic waste. Neasa MacErlean on the race for £80bn of contracts Sunday March 5, 2006The Observer
Later this month, the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA), the government authority created last year to oversee decommissioning over the next 150 years, will know whether its draft strategy for this long-term clean-up operation has been approved by the government. If it has been, a new industry will take shape, worth more than £80bn in the UK if military waste is included.
But decommissioning will be controversial and difficult. Like other developers of nuclear weapons, Britain has a particularly nasty physical legacy of waste. Most of ours is in 230 hectares at Sellafield in Cumbria - but there are 19 other civilian sites in England, Wales and Scotland which, along with Sellafield, are also about to become the subject of major clean-up contracts. Much less information is publicly available about the military element but it is estimated that, in total, Britain's nuclear waste would fill the Millennium Dome.
Because little decommissioning work has been done in the UK, we lack home-grown expertise. Another area of controversy will, therefore, be the arrival of the Americans - who have the far more extensive experience in this field but will no doubt be accused of profiteering and cutting corners on safety.
On top of these issues, the very future of nuclear power hangs to some degree on how decommissioning is handled. It is inconceivable that any new nuclear reactor would be built in the UK without the construction plans taking into account decommissioning and the disposal of radioactive materials. The average Briton lives 26 miles from a nuclear site - a fact that could change the way many politicians and the much of the public view the future of nuclear power.
Certainly, the regulators know how the public feels. Sir John Harman is chairman of the Environment Agency, one of the nuclear industry regulators. He said: 'An actual nuclear waste facility is probably 15 years in the future. If a decision was postponed on this, we would think it imprudent to start a new programme of building nuclear reactors not knowing what we are doing about the waste.'
Also this month, the NDA will publish an update of its estimate of the cost of cleaning up the 20 sites: this is likely to be an increase on the current £56bn, to be awarded in contracts to private- and public-sector organisations. In April, the NDA is due to start the tender process for its first contract, cleaning up low-level nuclear waste at Drigg, near Sellafield. This contract is relatively small - £1bn or so - but it paves the way for much larger contracts.
In July, the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management will make its recommendations to government on the possibilities for future waste disposal. These look likely to say that disposal is feasible for the long-term future either in sites near each reactor or in one shared depository. What has been ruled out is an international site - a politically sensitive issue but one which could have produced a geologically safer solution.
While the debate about long-term waste disposal goes on, some of the biggest US names in nuclear decommissioning - Bechtel, Fluor, Shaw and CH2M Hill - will be working out how to go about winning the contracts to be handed out in Britain over the next five years.
Bechtel worked closely with the government on establishing the NDA in April 2005; Fluor, with 30,000 employees worldwide, has been working for the US government at its nuclear installations since the 1950s; Shaw, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has already turned one US nuclear site back into greenfield land - invaluable experience for the forthcoming UK contracts; and CH2M Hill has joined forces with Amec (the only private British company expected to bid for this work) and the UK Atomic Energy Authority, the government body that claims to have 'more nuclear clean-up experience than anyone else in Europe'.
The other US companies in the running to get the contracts might follow the AMEC/UKAEA/CH2M Hill model by teaming up with European partners.
Whoever wins, skilled labour will be a problem. One expert believes that in the UK there are 'probably only a few hundred people trained and experienced enough to do this work'. The NDA sees the same problem. 'Overcoming the skills gap is one of the NDA's strategic priorities,' it says. It believes that about 30,000 people need to be recruited from the physical sciences and engineering sector for this work in the next 15 years.
The arrival of the Americans will cause an outcry. A spokesman for the NDA suggests that contracts will be awarded on the basis of cost and a mark-up - but the organisation says it will not publish the profit margin 'for commercial reasons'. One UK industry insider commented: 'The Americans will have the British taxpayers over a barrel and will spank their arse.'
The main contract that all potential bidders will have their eye on is Sellafield, due to be placed in 2009. A lot of wining and dining and making use of friendships will take place over this waste disposal gem. The value of work estimated by the NDA as needing to be done at Sellafield over its remaining lifetime is about £34bn. 'The place is in a desperate state,' said one specialist. It will not be clean until 2150.'
The problem at Sellafield and at some other locations is not so much the high-level radioactive waste - although it can remain highly dangerous for thousands of years, it is fairly easily identifiable. After it is given 40 years or so to cool down (a process now going on at Sellafield), this waste will then be encased in copper canisters and - as in the new Finnish plans which are attracting much interest from the rest of the world - buried in deep depositories in as safe a geological location as can be found.
The real problem is the intermediate-level waste, which is not readily identifiable, although some of it is almost as dangerous as that classified as high-level. Nirex, the government-owned company responsible for setting nuclear waste standards, estimates that the UK has 1,120 different types of nuclear waste (many resulting from Second World War and Cold War weapons development programmes). Finland, by comparison, has a much smaller problem, with fewer than 30 different waste streams.
'The really nasty problems are the pools of sludge in Sellafield,' says one insider. 'Do people know exactly what they contain?' The answer appears to be 'no', as not all the land contamination caused by the waste has yet been identified precisely.
Although the cost of nuclear clean-up will be spread over decades, it still represents a great prize to the companies that win the contracts. On its current figures, the NDA will handle contracts over the foreseeable future equal to the size of the entire British construction industry in any one year.
Then there is the military sector. This was estimated at £30bn in a rare parliamentary reference in 2001 by Margaret Beckett soon after she became Environment Secretary.
If we go for a new generation of nuclear reactors, organisations that win civil or military clean-up contracts will be the best placed to get involved in their design and development. And that's a whole new prize.


Blogger cynic said...

forget the economics of the clean-up.
please can anyone answer why Gordon
Brown chose to sell off Westinghouse,
builders of a first rate new generat-
ion nuclear reactor ,from nationally
owned British Nuclear Fuels,last year
when the prospect of a major new
build was just around the corner.

12:36 PM  

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