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IAEA Advises Lithuania on Project Risks of Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant Decommissioning

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Workers dismantling the turbine hall at Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant measure scrap metal for traces of radiation. (J. Donovan/IAEA)

The ongoing initiative to decommission Lithuania’s Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (INPP), set to last another two decades, should include plans for potential project risks to ensure that future costs and scheduling remain realistic, according to an IAEA-led expert mission that concluded today.

The five-day mission, carried out at the invitation of the Government of Lithuania, reviewed project risks and uncertainties related to the decommissioning of Ignalina’s two RBMK-1500 light water cooled graphite moderated reactors, which were shut down in 2004 and 2009, respectively. The European Commission is providing substantial funding for the project, due to be completed in 2038.

“Any undertaking of this kind involves a series of risks and uncertainties, so it’s important to mitigate them wherever possible,” said Patrick O’Sullivan, the IAEA decommissioning specialist who led the four-person mission team that also included experts from Slovakia, the United Kingdom and the United States. “Factoring these risks into the planning effort will help ensure realistic future cost estimates.”

The operator has identified risks at both the corporate and individual project level and has taken into consideration the experience of other countries in decommissioning, which the team considered to be good practices.

The team, which in the coming weeks will deliver its full report to the plant’s operators, also made a series of recommendations and suggestions aimed at strengthening the operator’s ability to identify project risks, including:

  • putting in place a baseline cost and schedule for the remainder of the project that provides sufficient detail and is realistic;
  • integrating risks into the baseline project and cost schedules, including a range of possible outcomes;
  • instituting a formal process of regular reporting against the identified risks.

INPP Director General Darius Janulevičius welcomed the team’s findings, saying they would be analyzed and applied to the extent possible.

“INPP has achieved significant progress over the past few years, ensuring effective implementation of key decommissioning activities,” Janulevičius said. “The broad competence and extensive experience of the experts involved in the IAEA mission will support INPP’s efforts towards building up an integrated risk management system that works effectively.”

The decommissioning work at Ignalina, located in the southeastern corner of the Baltic country near the border with Belarus, has recently reached some key milestones, including partial dismantlement of the turbine hall and construction of a solid waste management facility and an interim spent fuel storage facility.

The experience at Ignalina could offer valuable lessons as the international community prepares to decommision scores of nuclear power plant reactors that have reached the end of their operating lifetime or will do so in the coming years.

“The decommissioning of power units with RBMK-type reactors has allowed INPP to gain unique experience that can be systematized and applied in other nuclear energy projects,” Janulevičius said. “INPP has a vision to become an expert on safe and efficient nuclear facility decommissioning and radioactive waste management.”

Decommissioning is a growing issue worldwide. Currently, 157 nuclear power reactors have been permanently shut down; of these, only 17 have been fully decommissioned. Of the world’s 442 nuclear power reactors currently in operation, more than half are older than 30 years and are nearing the end of their operating licenses; those whose licenses are not extended will need to be decommissioned in coming years. The issue will be the focus of a major IAEA conference to be held in Madrid on 23-27 May.

“The thinking used to be that we could close down these plants and wait a few decades before dismantling them,” O’Sullivan said. “But the arguments for waiting are becoming less compelling. We have the technology now, in many places funds have been built up to carry out the work, and at the end of the day it’s a question of fairness: our generations benefited from these plants, so the job of decommissioning them shouldn’t be left to future generations.”

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