Dounreay Team Begins To Empty Reactor Of Nuclear Material
27th September 2017
Work is underway to retrieve the last remaining radioactive fuel elements that have been stuck for decades inside the iconic Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR).
The experimental dome-shaped nuclear reactor once led the world in fast breeder technology and after it closed in 1977 most of the core fuel was removed. But work to remove elements from the breeder zone came to a halt when some were found to be swollen and jammed. Almost 1,000 - around two-thirds of the total - were left in place.
Decommissioning the 58-year-old reactor is one of the most technically challenging projects in the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) estate and removing the breeder elements has been a top priority.
Now, after many years of designing and testing remotely-operated equipment, a decommissioning team has started to recover the elements.
It is expected to take around three years to remove them all, after which work can begin on the final dismantling of the landmark reactor.
"Dealing with this material is one of the highest priorities anywhere for the NDA, not just at Dounreay but across our UK sites. The safe and timely retrieval of the breeder material is crucial to both the site's closure programme and the national defueling programme," said David Peattie, NDA Chief Executive. "I am very pleased with this achievement which is a great example of how the Dounreay team and the NDA can work together to deliver results of national importance."
Ron Hibbert, Senior Project Manager at Dounreay Site Restoration Limited (DSRL), the company carrying out the work for the NDA, added: “Reaching this important stage has been a huge achievement by the project team.
“Emptying the reactor vessel of this material is one of the biggest engineering challenges we face in decommissioning the site and it's a great moment for DSRL and our contractors to see their hard work pay off.”
DFR was built in the 1950s at a time when there was a worldwide shortage of uranium for electricity generation. Its core was surrounded by a blanket of natural uranium elements that, when exposed to the effects of the radiation, would “breed” to create a new fuel, plutonium. UK experimentation with fast breeders came to an end in the 1990s.
During a recent visit to the reactor, Jamie Stone, Member of Parliament for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, said: “Actually watching on screen the removal of an element from the reactor core was fascinating. Seeing the intricate techniques and skills, and the special locally designed equipment being used was absolutely inspirational.
“In an age when sometimes you begin to wonder where British technology is going, it is hugely encouraging to see what is being done at Dounreay. I take my hat off to the workforce.”
When the damaged elements were discovered, decommissioning effectively stopped for 20 years, until the decision was taken in 2000 to close down Dounreay and the creation of the NDA a few years later gave fresh momentum to the task.
The elements were immersed in some 57 tonnes of highly reactive liquid metal which had to be removed and destroyed before remotely-operated cameras could inspect the condition of the material. This programme took more than 10 years.
Now, following extensive research and development trials inside the plant and at a test rig on the outskirts of Thurso, work has started to remove the remaining breeder material.
Photograph: Jamie Stone MP looks on as the Dounreay team removes a fuel element from the reactor.
Work has started to make safe one of the most hazardous materials left at Dounreay. Highly radioactive liquid, known as raffinate, has been stored in tanks for around 20 years after being produced as a by-product of Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR) fuel reprocessing.
Construction of a new facility to support the decommissioning of reactors and demolition of historic active laboratories are just two of Dounreay's major projects expected to be delivered as part of a new framework agreement, potentially worth up to £400 million, which is being published in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) today. - www.ojeu.eu The decommissioning services framework agreement will initially be for a period of up to 4 years with the possibility of extensions of up to 3 years meaning skyline changes could be delivered over the next decade under the arrangements.
Engineers at Dounreay have raided a scrap car and a kitchen can opener to help decommission one of the site's reactors. The handbrake from a vintage 1968 Ford Cortina has been used to help steer a camera, attached to wheels taken from can openers, into the Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR) where a detailed survey inside the plant was completed.
Dounreay Site Restoration Limited has submitted a planning application to the Highland Council covering a series of decommissioning projects expected to take place between 2018 and the site's shut down, also known as the interim end state. The application, which is the last of three planning phases covering the overall decommissioning of the site, follows engagement undertaken earlier this year including public events and an opportunity to comment on draft documents online.
Drone technology is helping Dounreay reduce the risk of accidents and save money on its inspection of buildings. A camera mounted on an unmanned aerial vehicle is taking over tasks previously carried out by workers on elevated work platforms.
Eleven young people who have completed their Dounreay apprentice training are "very much a part of the future of the far north." Guest speaker Jamie Stone MP told the audience at the apprentice indenture ceremony that took place last Friday that, as Dounreay continues to decommission, the newly indentured apprentices would be an important part of the area's ability to offer a skilled and innovative workforce. Dounreay Managing Director and former nuclear industry apprentice Phil Craig added: “I am very proud that we are celebrating yet another group of talented apprentices.
Companies are being invited to LINC together and support Scotland's largest decommissioning project thanks to an innovative new scheme designed to increase the number of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) delivering clean-up work at Dounreay. Up to five companies will be invited to help understand and develop the best proposal for size-reducing all of the machinery and components that will need to be removed from Dounreay's Prototype Fast Reactor (PFR) - the largest to be built at the Caithness site.
Graduates from as far afield as Portugal and London arrived in Caithness last week to kick start their career at Dounreay. Ten new recruits have started on the two-year graduate scheme with educational backgrounds as diverse as engineering, law and digital forensics and ethical hacking.
It is 60 years this weekend since the first criticality was achieved in Scotland using a test rig at Dounreay. Now the decommissioning team responsible for the site is marking that milestone by taking a major step towards demolishing the oldest reactor that remains at the former fast reactor research centre.
This film, produced by AEA Technology in 1994, looks back on the history of the fast reactor development programme at Dounreay..
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