UK operators call for clearer waste rules to unlock supply chain gains

Clearer UK policy on nuclear waste classification and industry standardization could open up new waste routes and wipe billions off the U.K.’s decommissioning bill, industry participants said.

Waste classification and standardization efficiencies could save billions of pounds at Sellafield, the U.K.'s largest decommissioning project.

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In December, the Nuclear Industry Council (NIC) called for the UK government to clarify nuclear waste management policy to accelerate decommissioning timeframes and reduce costs.

“A lack of clarity is a blocker for many decommissioning projects…Government policy on waste should be clarified to ensure that classification and disposability of waste are clearly differentiated,” the NIC said in its proposals for a UK Nuclear Sector Deal.

The NIC’s proposals focus on Low Level Waste (LLW) management while the UK moves towards a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) for high-level waste.

The nuclear industry sees the implementation of risk-proportionate waste classification as an essential step towards a new national waste management strategy which would optimize LLW storage capacity and introduce efficiencies in waste packaging, disposal and storage.

For example, the standardization of waste packaging technology across the UK sector could generate significant savings and "large cost reduction benefits could be realized by the sharing of processing and waste storage capability between sites," the NIC said.

At Sellafield, the U.K.'s largest decommissioning project, improved waste management policies and standardization could generate savings of up to 4.8 billion pounds ($6.7 billion) over the lifetime of the project, representing a 5% saving on current estimates, the NIC said.

                          NDA forecast undiscounted expenditure

                                                           (Click image to enlarge)

Source: UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) annual report and accounts 2016 to 2017.

Volume challenge

Improved categorization of LLW would open up alternative routes, accelerate decommissioning and clear-up and reduce “hotel costs” of waste management, the NIC said in its report.

By 2125, the UK is forecast to have packaged 1.6 billion cubic meters of low-level waste, following the dismantling and cleaning up of nuclear sites, according to data published by the government in 2016.

Back in 2007, the government recognized that the National LLW Repository, located 4 miles south of Sellafield, would not meet future demand from the UK’s 17-site decommissioning program. Capacity of the LLW Repository will be further stretched by activity in other sectors such as the decommissioning of offshore oil and gas facilities.

By volume, LLW and Very Low-Level Waste (VLLW) account for 90% of the UK’s nuclear waste. LLW largely comprises building rubble, soil, plant metal and equipment from dismantling and decommissioning activities.

Diverting waste

In 2011, the NDA established Waste Hierarchy, a management principle which encourages site licence companies (SLC’s) to segregate waste and minimize waste going to the LLWR. This would allow the NDA to extend the operational life of the LLWR to 2130 and avoid building an additional facility, it said.

By guiding operators through best practice, SLC LLWR diverted 89% of its VLLW and low category LLW away from the repository in 2011-2016, saving UK taxpayers 200 million pounds between 2011-2016. This strategy also avoided the need to construct future vaults, estimated at a cost of 3 billion pounds.

According to NDA data in 2017, waste still arrives at the LLWR which could be diverted, often due to a lack of attention on waste logistics in decommissioning activities.

                                Annual disposals at the UK LLWR

Source: BEIS, NDA (2016)

The nuclear industry believes new policy amendments which formalize waste categorization will build stronger incentives to divert waste from the LLWR facility.

Such a move would reduce inefficiencies generated through misclassification of waste, and have a direct impact on costs, Mike Nichols, Managing Director, Pactec Engineering Packaging Solutions (Pactec EPS), said.

“Formalizing categories can only benefit as through waste segregation you invariably group the largest volumes at the lower categories of hazardous waste, and at these categories you can manage waste cheaper,” he said.

New capacity

The construction of new near-surface waste (landfill) capacity could help reduce expenditure on multiple on-site interim storage sites, which do not benefit from economies of scale, and reduce spending on packaging for LLWR disposal, according to the NIC.

In 2011, the NDA granted permission to three existing hazardous landfill sites, ENRMF, Clifton Marsh and FCC Lillyhall, to receive VLLW and LLW.

In addition, co-located facilities have been established at Dounreay and Sellafield. Waste transfers from Dounreay to the LLW disposal began in 2015, with approximately 3,000 cubic meters already consigned including repackaged LLW from the historical disposal pits.

Confusion around Waste Acceptance Criteria risks under-utilization of landfill sites as many companies assume only VLLW can be directed to these facilities, Nicols said.

“The reality is that the landfill sites have an upper acceptance threshold of 200Bq per gram which is well into LLW territory,” Nicols said.

New solutions

Formalized waste categories and greater awareness of storage options will help the supply chain create logistics and equipment solutions that drive up efficiency.

In a previous example of cross-industry collaboration, Pactec developed a flexible waste packaging solution in direct response to the NDA's waste diversion drive.

Pactec collaborated with the Magnox Harwell facility, Augean’s ENRMF landfill site and engineering group Nuvia, who developed a High-Resolution Assay Monitor system to provide real-time monitoring and categorization of waste.

“This approach expediated the waste that was going off-site at Harwell and subsequently other sites, to the landfills,” Nicols said.

Towards standardization

As the European decommissioning sector grows in the coming years, standardization is seen as a key way to cut costs across multiple projects.

Practices continue to differ between UK sites and the NIC projects standardization of packaging solutions and sharing of resources could cut costs at Sellafield by up to 1.1 billion pounds over the life of the project.

“A waste box at one site costs 11,000 pounds whereas at another it costs 35,000 pounds– for ostensibly the same wastes… smart procurement and sensible use of standardization could deliver significant savings,” NIC said in December.

Differences between project complexities and working processes can present a challenge to standardization, but savings are clearly possible.

Magnox has already adapted its waste strategy to take an integrated approach across multiple assets. The transfer of 130 ILW packages from the Oldbury site to Berkeley for storage avoided the construction of a separate storage site at Oldbury and saved 15 million pounds, according to Magnox.

Standardization efficiencies will be further put to the test when EDF decommissions its seven UK AGR nuclear power plant sites. The decommissioning of EDF’s reactors is expected to start in 2023 and is projected to cost around 19.5 billion pounds.

By Kerry Chamberlain