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IAEA Advances Project to Address Challenges Facing Global Nuclear Decommissioning Efforts


Workers dismantling the Turbine Hall at Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant measure scrap metal for traces of radiation. (Photo: Jefffrey Donovan/IAEA)

IAEA efforts to improve understanding related to the decommissioning of nuclear facilities took a step forward last week as experts from around the world gathered to provide feedback for an Agency initiative to catalogue and analyse the status of and major challenges faced by decommissioning programmes worldwide.

The two-year IAEA project brought together 40 participants representing 20 countries as well as the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the European Commission and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Gathering online for four days last week for a Technical Meeting on Global Status of Decommissioning, the experts discussed decommissioning strategies and timeframes, and foreseen challenges, including resource needs both in terms of personnel and technology.

“The nuclear industry faces a challenge over the coming decades to decommission scores of facilities,” said Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy. “This multifaceted task must be implemented in line with high standards of safety, while also being cost effective, and address the social and environmental dimension for host communities. This task is urgent and necessary regardless of whether or not the countries involved plan to utilize again nuclear energy in the future.”

The IAEA sees increasing work over the coming decades for decommissioing and associated waste management programmes. Many of the world's 442 nuclear power reactors currently in operation will phase out of service, while new reactors to be commissioned will need plans to fund their decommissioning. A total of 189 power reactors have been shut down for decommissioning, with 17 of them fully decommissioned. In addition, 130 fuel cycle facilities have been decommissioned as well as about 440 research reactors.

Participants in the technical meeting provided extensive feedback on the draft report for the Global Status of Decommissioning project. They expect that the report, once completed, will be a useful and necessary resource both for those with policy responsibility for decommissioning programmes as well as for the public and other stakeholders interested in the future management of liabilities from nuclear activities.

Decommissioning is a multi-disciplinary process which includes activities such as decontamination and dismantling of plant and building structures, leading to the removal of regulatory controls so that a facility and site may be reused. Decommissioning involves technical and non-technical aspects and requires timely and effective management.

“Addressing the final stages of the lifecycle presents a range of challenges, some of which are specific to the national context and type of facility, and some of which are essentially generic,” said Mike Guy of Sellafield Sites Limited in the United Kingdom, who chaired the meeting. “In the former category are issues associated with specific waste types, such as the removal of sludges accumulated over many years in legacy storage facilities. The latter category includes issues such as the need to have available adequate financial resources, waste management systems and competent staff over timeframes which cover several decades.”

“Decommissioning strategies being implemented by facility owners are influenced by external considerations, such as national nuclear policy, radioactive waste management infrastructure developments, developments in the decommissioning market aimed at achieving greater efficiency, technological developments and the evolution of political and societal thinking on environmental issues such as sustainability and circular economy,” added Tatyana Rakitskaya of Rosatom, who chaired a meeting session.

The IAEA assists countries in efforts to plan and implement decommissioning projects and develops related safety standards and Nuclear Energy Series publications and other reports on technical and safety related aspects, organizes meetings of experts, collaborative projects, scientific exchanges, training courses and workshops. These activities are supported by resources including an eLearning platform and the International Decommissioning Network (IDN), which provides a forum for interaction among experts who can also share knowledge via a wiki-based information resource. The Agency pays particular attention to introducing circular economy principles into decommissioning considerations.

Participants in the technical meeting agreed on a range of activities aimed at completing the data collection efforts to allow completion of the report by the end of 2021 and publication shortly thereafter, said Patrick O’Sullivan, the IAEA Decommissioning Specialist leading the project. The IAEA also plans to organize an international conference on decommissioning in 2023, following its previous conference on that topic held in Madrid in 2016.

The IAEA supports countries that operate or seek to introduce nuclear power as a safe and reliable source of low carbon electricity as well as nations that are phasing out the use of atomic energy and moving to dismantle their nuclear plants. Currently, 31 countries use nuclear power, which provides about 10% of the world’s electricity and almost one third of its low carbon electricity. The Agency is working with around 30 other countries that are interested in adding nuclear power to their energy mix or already embarking on a nuclear power programme.

The IAEA recently selected the five best entries from a global crowdsourcing challenge that sought original concepts or project outlines from young people for advancing the decommissioning of nuclear facilities or environmental remediation of radiologically contaminated sites. The entries included characterization toolkits, instruments for on‑field measurements and collecting 3D radiation data, as well as robots and artificial intelligence.

“Decommissioning is a field with significant potential for the future and for innovation, and it is important for all interested countries to remain aware of global developments, including in areas such as digitalization, virtual reality, 3D modelling, and making best use of automation and robotics,” said Olena Mykolaichuk, Head of the IAEA’s Decommissioning and Environmental Remediation Section. “These are areas where young people in particular can make an important contribution.”

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