Article   |   Kristina Gillin   |   26.03.2021

Looking at nuclear decommissioning through a sustainability lens.

Given the age distribution of the world's nuclear power fleet, there will be a significant increase in the rate of nuclear reactors coming off line. Of the 614 reactors that had been connected to the grid by end of 2017, 166 have been permanently shut down. Assuming a 40-year average operating life for those that remain, that number will more than double over the next 10-12 years.

On the cusp of this increase in nuclear decommissioning, it is important to pause and reflect: How has it gone so far? Are things likely to improve using current approaches? And if not, what is needed to create a sustainable decommissioning paradigm?

Experience is showing that decommissioning nuclear reactors and managing the resulting wastes is rarely straightforward. The vast majority of shutdown reactors have yet to be dismantled. Spent fuel or other waste from those that have been dismantled have generally not gone far, but are stored nearby. New waste transports tend to attract protests and disposal facilities have become nearly impossible to implement. This is clearly unsustainable.

We need to bear in mind that decommissioning is just one aspect of a much bigger picture. From a societal perspective, the shutting down any major operation will be disruptive, with impacts that are economic, social and environmental – not to mention, emotional and political. The nature of this bigger picture is non-linear – it is a complex adaptive system, like an ecosystem, a city or our immune system. Is it any wonder that traditional, technical approaches to decommissioning have a poor track record?

Once we recognise that nuclear back-end management is a complex adaptive system, it becomes clear that a new approach is needed. That is a holistic approach that starts by asking questions when a set of nuclear reactors is nearing the end of commercial operations. How will that power be replaced? And the jobs? How can impacts to surrounding communities be mitigated? What will the site be used for after decommissioning? Can some of the buildings, equipment and materials be reused? And for those that will become waste – how and where will they be managed? In other words, asking central questions in concert and searching for integrated answers.

Of equal importance is to broaden the conversation and become inclusive. This does not mean merely sharing information or asking for input; it means inviting the public and other stakeholders into the decision-making. Making room at the table for those who will be affected by the difficult decisions being made is not only the right thing to do; it means that a broader spectrum of perspectives, knowledge, ideas and passions can be tapped into instead of decisions being made behind closed doors.

This article is a summary of the lead article featured in Nuclear Engineering International, July 2018, Page 26 to 28, following an interview between Caroline Peachey, Editor, and Lloyd's Register's Kristina Gillin. You can access the full article at the publisher's website at July digital edition.

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