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Decommissioning Conference Ends with Focus on New Tech, Circular Economy, Youth

As scores of nuclear reactors and other nuclear facilities approach the end of their operational life around the world, decommissioning them safely and efficiently is expected to be a growth sector in the coming decades. About 450 participants from across the globe, 350 of them in person, gathered at the IAEA’s hybrid event this week to discuss ways to advance decommissioning projects worldwide, including through greater use of new technologies and digitalization, circular economy principles and the contribution of a new generation of technical talent.

The weeklong IAEA International Conference on Decommissioning: Addressing the Past and Ensuring the Future, which concluded in Vienna today, comes amid increasing global interest in the topic as countries plan for the retirement of ageing nuclear facilities and the introduction of a new generation of nuclear technologies to address challenges, including the need for reliable and low carbon energy to mitigate climate change.

“We face new and complex challenges. As we see the global expansion of nuclear energy and technology applications, we also recognize that nearly half of the current over 400 power reactors will be in decommissioning by 2050,” Laurence Piketty, Deputy CEO of the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and President of the conference, said in her concluding statement. “While reactor decommissioning draws the most interest, fuel cycle facilities, research reactors, medical isotope and other facilities are far more numerous and also require attention.”

The conference, whose previous edition took place in Madrid in 2016, noted significant advancements in the field since then, such as greater use of robots, drones, artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging digital technologies. It also underscored the need for further progress in areas such as regulatory approaches, human resources, technology development and deployment, and financial planning and oversight. The IAEA’s recently published Global Status of Decommissioning of Nuclear Installations provides the latest overview of decommissioning projects worldwide, as well as key considerations for the future.

Up to half of today’s fleet of 409 nuclear power reactors operating in 32 countries may be shut down and in need of decommissioning by 2050. More than 200 nuclear power reactors have already been retired from service, with 22 already fully decommissioned. Meanwhile, a significant number of research reactors currently in operation (222 in 53 countries) and fuel cycle facilities operating today (354 in 40 countries) are also likely to be shut down by mid-century. Some 450 research reactors have already been decommissioned, as well as more than 150 fuel cycle facilities.

To enable more effective decommissioning, regulatory approaches should be less prescriptive and more flexible and dynamic, taking stakeholder views into account, Piketty said. As decommissioning projects reach their final stages, clear guidance for clean-up and releasing sites and facilities from regulatory control, which is the final aim of decommissioning, is crucial. Prudent safekeeping of decommissioning funds, built up over the course of a facility’s operational life, is also important, Piketty added.

The main challenge remains the lack of radioactive waste disposal facilities and lack of plans for disposal in several countries. “Countries with clearly defined radioactive waste policies facilitate their decommissioning activities more effectively,” said Piketty, adding that more effort is needed on advancing national policies and strategies for decommissioning and waste management, “including aspects of waste disposal.”

New technologies, including virtual reality and digital mapping, are allowing experts to map radioactive areas of structures, thereby enhancing the efficiency and safety of decommissioning projects. Still, these technologies are not yet being implemented widely worldwide. More training and international cooperation through the IAEA is needed, Piketty said.

“Efforts are needed to ensure that decommissioning is an attractive career option for women, including promoting women as role models for young people,” Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy, said in his concluding remarks. “Similar considerations apply to making decommissioning attractive for young people globally. Presenting decommissioning in the overall context of its sustainability and environmental protection benefits will help in this regard.”

More and more, the concepts of circular economy and sustainability are being applied in decommissioning early on and integrated into the structural design of future nuclear facilities. Now, “decommissioning by design” for the next generation of nuclear power reactors “is becoming a fact,” Piketty said. As a result, new standards are being developed along with new approaches and methods for addressing life cycle costs and decommissioning funds and regulatory oversight. These developments create opportunities for those joining the nuclear sector to build a career in decommissioning, share their vision and lead the way.

In this new chapter opening on nuclear decommissioning, as well as technology development and deployment, the IAEA “is expected to continue knowledge-sharing, networking and benchmarking initiatives to address these challenges,” Piketty said.

Source: EMM/ IAEA