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The critical role of nuclear decommissioning in the future of the nuclear energy industry

Tom Eastup

By Tom Eastup

Nuclear Future

31 January 2023

This article was first published in Nuclear Future.

The UK’s nuclear industry is at its most pivotal moment for half a century. The global awakening to the threat of climate change has led to many of the world’s governments and societies embracing the energy transition – but climate change is not the only reason society is looking to move towards low carbon energy.

The energy landscape is volatile, and this is impacting people’s lives. First, we saw post pandemic gas prices, driven by resurgence in demand whilst supply struggled to expand at the same rate. Then we saw the Ukraine crisis putting further pressure on oil and gas supplies. Now we’re seeing the UK’s ambition to electrify nearly all its transport network, which will create an unprecedented upsurge in electricity demand. All of this is driving investment into low carbon energy. An incredible nexus of not two, but four concurrent macrotrends. It is going to be an interesting decade in the energy sector. All of this creates the perfect environment for the nuclear energy sector to step into being a cornerstone upon which the modern electricity landscape is re-built. 

The UK Government’s British Energy Security Strategy has enshrined this intent for nuclear energy, renewables and hydrogen (and oil and gas, to be fair), the biggest and clearest energy policy shift in two decades. More recently, the UK Government’s commitment to Sizewell C and creation of Great British Nuclear, a body setup to avoid the past failures of the Wylfa and Moorside projects by ensuring a joined-up approach to financing and development, have put the sector a few steps further towards a renaissance. And of course, there is the potentially market disrupting Small Module Reactor (SMR) business model and technology being developed by Rolls Royce SMR, which could change the economics of nuclear power forever, alleviating one of the largest barriers to large-scale deployment. 

Whilst the realistic prospect of nuclear new build is exciting, providing hope and excitement for the UK’s 60,000+ nuclear sector workers, there is a hurdle that must be overcome. Put simply, the entire sector will have to change. Not only this, but this change needs to start with the back end of the value chain: how we decommission our facilities. 

Efficient and effective waste management

If nuclear energy is to take its place as a key pillar within the UK’s low carbon energy mix, we must be able to demonstrate our ability to manage decommissioning and waste management effectively. When new nuclear power stations are being considered (whether Gigawatt scale or SMRs), uncertainty in the costs of decommissioning only hinder the investment case – creating delays that the UK cannot accommodate if we are to turn around the effects of climate change and get energy prices under control for the long term. In addition, nuclear decommissioning is where the rubber hits the road in the sector. This is where committed individuals work tirelessly to make safe degrading assets, managing radiological and conventional health and safety risks daily. It is here, in the act of solving complex one-of-a-kind decommissioning challenges, that there is greatest opportunity for innovation to flourish. So, the stage is set for the less publicised end of the nuclear value chain to become the vanguard of transforming an entire industry. The UK’s nuclear decommissioning sector is being asked to do more, and hence is on the verge of possibly the largest change since the creation of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). 

In June 2021, the UK Government reached a deal with EDF Energy to pave the way for optimised decommissioning arrangements, drawing on the extensive decommissioning expertise within the NDA – a logical choice to give such a complex technical and programmatic undertaking to those who know how best to do it. In April 2022, the last of the Parent Body Organisation (PBO) arrangements ceased, meaning that Sellafield, Magnox and Dounreay all now sit within the NDA group as subsidiaries. 

Great. So what’s the problem? The nuclear sector as a whole, and the decommissioning sector in particular, has a mixed reputation for delivery performance. It is, in part, this reputation that restricts the support for the sector, and hence its ability to thrive within the context of the UK’s energy landscape and its wider contribution to UK PLC. Unless we fundamentally re-think how we approach our mission, we will continue to underperform against our true potential. 

There are some things holding us back that we must address, as an entire industry. For instance, the sector has historically been slow to adopt new methods that can support accelerated or more productive delivery – whether this is technological innovations getting stuck in the ‘valley of death’; adopting contemporary commercial practices such as enterprises and alliancing; or the use of Agile principles to accelerate delivery. The resurgent interest in nuclear energy, fuelled by the energy transition, is a huge opportunity, but one that if we are not careful, we will miss. 

With an expanding new build portfolio, the sector will inevitably grow. However, if it just merely grows without also taking the opportunity to alleviate some of the inhibiting ways of working, then it will miss out on the chance to take its place as a critical enabler of the energy transition. 

Rejuvenating the sector 

To deliver at the pace and scale required, there will need to be an industry-wide transition, enabled by transformation at all levels: Government, regulators, developers, financiers, site license companies and the supply chain. Public and private organisations across the sector will be forced to do more with less, and this requires new approaches – all of which require complex change, innovation and collaboration. And all this whilst nuclear organisations continue to build, maintain, and operate critical national infrastructure in a safe and effective manner. 

This will be a challenge as many are not well equipped to design, deliver and realise the change they need to adapt for the future – which may result in a significant number of failed investments in the future transformative programmes. In order for organisations across the sector – from new build to decommissioning – to deliver differently, mature their transformation capabilities and adapt to thrive, they will need to focus on:

1. Uniting stakeholders around a compelling purpose 

This will release the intrinsic motivation for change by galvanising employees, communities and supply chain partners to collaborate, innovate and deliver purpose driven outcomes through their daily activities. Leaders can unite their stakeholders by reframing what they are asking of their teams in a way that creates deep and meaningful connection to the organisation’s mission by: Reflecting on their organisation's mission statements and whether they are connected to the energy transition. 

Diagnosing the extent to which employees and critical supply chain partners are connected to their organisation’s purpose; investigate and intervene on areas of disconnection. Activating influential employees at all levels of the organisation to lead and encourage dialogue in the organisation’s purpose, and how this filters down to the individual. For nuclear decommissioning organisations, switching the narrative from ‘cleaning up the mistakes of the past’ to ‘unlocking the future’ could be a powerful catalyst. 

The compelling purpose must therefore go beyond the core mission of clean-up. It should articulate the value that nuclear decommissioning provides to the wider nuclear sector, local and national economy. Effective and efficient decommissioning can be used to firm up the investment case for new nuclear. It can foster significant, innovation which can expand growth for SMEs and others into different sectors. This is a key way in which decommissioning helps UK PLC maintain a stable base of nuclear SQEP workers that can be, and are being, used to manage peaks in demand in response to new build projects. 

2. Adopt agile delivery and change approaches 

Deploying an adaptive approach that builds on the strengths of the nuclear sector (i.e. moving from a Learning from Experience (LFE) process to a ‘Learn Fast’ mindset) will allow organisations to quickly implement change that makes an impact. It also reduces the likelihood of costly transformation programmes that fail to deliver. Leaders should consider whether their operating models are fit for purpose in an evolving wold dominated by technology, hybrid working and uncertainties impacting delivery by: Creating ‘space in the pace’ to make sure teams have time to reflect regroup, and discuss things that went well or did not go well; this needs to go beyond the ineffective LFE practices of today and evolve to the learning organisation mindset of tomorrow. Considering how to achieve predictability through agility – transformations are uncertain due to their complexity, and against a hard deadline, innovation and experimentation will be required to meet the intended outcomes in the time window. 

Investigating how organisational agility could work for an organisation – spotting areas where tried and tested traditions are not working and where the opportunities are to change the way you operate. For nuclear decommissioning organisations, change is inevitable. Organisational operating models and approaches to large scale decommissioning delivery have not evolved significantly in the last twenty years, but there is much that can be leveraged from the existing culture and capabilities. 

The sector should embrace more of a ‘fail fast’ mindset and approach but it will need to create an environment of psychological safety first amongst a workforce, so that they can embrace the concept of failing and - more importantly - failing fast. 

3. Prioritise ‘Time to Value’ 

Delivering benefits that have a meaningful, positive impact early in a transformation programme will build momentum and help ensure stakeholders are bought into the change journey from the outset – instilling confidence that the longer- term outcomes will be achieved. 

This approach should always be adopted versus a traditional ‘big bang’ transformation approach (where the benefits are realised at the end of a long journey), which all too often don't work - four fifths of public sector transformations fail. Leaders can do this by: Building in ‘announceables’ into transformation planning – communicating regularly and often for big and small successes helps create a positive, forward looking and change hungry organisational culture; this is vital to making the change happen and ensuring it is embedded. 

Adopting a phased release approach that will ‘lock in’ change sequentially and cumulatively, keeping a steady but progressive drumbeat of progress whilst not creating change overload. For nuclear decommissioning organisations undergoing change, it will be crucial to create meaningful and positive improvements to those who feel it most – i.e. workers operating at the front face of hazardous decommissioning. One way of doing this is by removing inefficiencies and barriers to progressing decommissioning, such as administrative burden, disproportionate governance or skill. 

4. Acknowledge the challenge 

Delivering complex change in a safety focused, regulated, unionised environment is a challenge. Leaders should invest in building change and transformation capabilities inhouse by up-skilling their existing workforce and creating a safe environment for them to test, refine and implement changes, establish new capabilities whilst sustaining a reliable and high-performing safe business-as-usual. 

This can be done by:

  • Delivering change quickly but sensitively – these types of environments exhibit high change inertia and elasticity (changes tend to snap back more easily) and leaders must move quickly through delivery, but also be willing to decelerate where necessary. Focusing on making change stick to shore up success rates – the use of transition states can also provide periods of stability, making the journey easier for staff. 
  • Learning from the outside; the nuclear sector, like any sector, has its nuances but many of the challenges observed with delivering complex change are also seen elsewhere in comparable sectors like rail, oil and gas, infrastructure and defence.
  • Focusing on embedding change management and up-skilling, rather than approaching this as an ‘add on’ – giving staff the knowledge to design and lead change can overcome some of these barriers (change from within is always more powerful) whilst giving them new skills for the future. For nuclear decommissioning organisations, it is likely that change inertia is high, meaning delivering truly transformational change will be challenging. In a sector not used to designing and delivering transformation, focusing on building in-house capability, possibly in partnership with the supply chain to bring in experience from other sectors, will provide change expertise that can better and more sensitively react to organisation specific nuances. This includes sub-cultures, motivations, change resistance and stakeholder engagement (local community, regulator, unions etc.), while at the same time, up-skilling change champions to drive change in a sustainable way in the decommissioning organisations. 

The transition

The nuclear industry as a whole is on the verge of expanding and taking its place as a key pillar of the net zero solution and wider energy transition, but the sector will need to change – and this change should start with decommissioning. The uncertain, complex nature of decommissioning work presents an opportunity upon which to generate innovation and capability the likes of which other parts of the industry cannot provide. To solidify the investment cases for future new nuclear projects, we need to not only show that we can clean up after ourselves, but also demonstrate the value of decommissioning work to the wider nuclear sector, local economy and UK PLC. Many organisations will need to change if the sector is to undergo a transition from underperformance to outperformance, but most are not equipped to design and manage complex change.

Image of a nuclear power plant in a field.
Pictured: Nuclear Power station

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