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Controversial Reactor Painting Nixed

Friday, March 4, 2011

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Operators of the UK’s legendary Dounreay Fast Reactor have scrapped plans to spend $1.6 million for additional maintenance painting on the vast steel sphere that houses the reactor.

The golf-ball-type sphere is nearly due for its regular 10-year protective maintenance coating, but the reactor is being decommissioned over the next 20 years, and the reactor’s site operators have decided to put the painting funds toward the £2.6 billion (about $4.2 billion USD) in decommissioning costs.

Painting “looks like a ludicrous waste of public funds,” Minister of Parliament David Stewart told local newspapers.

David Stewart

David Stewart, a Minister of Parliament,
had called the maintenance painting a
“ludicrous waste of public funds.”

Added Minister of Parliament Rob Gibson: “It was a huge amount of money to spend on painting a building that is going to come down. The decision not to go ahead is sense. They have listened to the criticism, and the money should be spent on creating jobs from renewable energy.”

Sphere Steel Assessed

The reactor inside the pale-green sphere is a major chemical and radiological hazard. The sphere is designed to contain a leak or explosion during decommissioning and will be scrapped when that process is complete.

An internal assessment has determined that the steel dome is thick enough to protect the reactor inside until it is dismantled, according to Dounreay Site Restoration Limited (DSRL), which operates the site under a contract with the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

Dounreay Fast Reactor

Reactor Photos: Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd

Completion of the facility, shown here
under construction in 1955, was to be
Britain’s “man on the moon moment.”

“Other than the safety gantries which have to be painted for health and safety reasons, we have decided not to proceed with the repainting, said DSRL spokesman Colin Punler.

Public Hazard

The decision scraps both the next overall coating job, set for 2012, and the one scheduled for 10 years after that. Each painting project costs about £500,000 (about $813,000 USD).

The reactor is considered a major public hazard, and its decommissioning is a priority for the UK’s NDA. However, NDA announced in January that it was capping funds for the Dounreay project at £150 million (about $244 million USD) a year. That announcement put an end to painting and other activities.

Simon Middlemas, managing director of DSRL, described the funding level as a “very good outcome in a very tough climate for public funds.”

Dounreay Fast Reactor

Only the narrow walkway
for workers around the sphere’s
circumference will be painted.

‘Man on the Moon’ Moment

When the Dounreay Fast Reactor went online Nov. 14, 1959, it was “Britain’s man-on-the-moon moment, when a decade of scientific and engineering breakthroughs culminated in the most advanced nuclear plant in the world,” according to a history on the reactor’s web site.

A workforce of 3000 had worked around the clock for four years to build the experimental plant that was to pave the way for electricity "too cheap to meter."

Dounreay was the center of UK fast reactor research and development from 1955 until 1994 and “raised the hopes of a nation seeking new sources of energy,” the article said. “Experts believed every town in the country could be powered by its own fast reactor within 20 years.”

However, public confidence in nuclear power eroded over time, fanned by accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, PA.

Meanwhile, the Dounreay facility did not work as planned, due to “big gaps in our knowledge” when the reactor was designed and built.

‘One of the Biggest Hazards in the UK’

According to the Dounreay website, the burning of the fuel in the core created a reaction “so intense that pressurized water or gas—the normal medium for removing the heat from a nuclear reactor—wasn’t up to the task. The scientists used liquid metal instead.”

“Almost 170,000 liters of a sodium and potassium alloy, known as NaK, were poured into the experimental fast reactor at Dounreay,” according to the reactor’s website.

“It was very effective at rapid transfer of intense heat. But the downside was its chemical hazard—the noxious alloy poses a serious risk to health and would ignite easily if mishandled.”

The reactor was shut down in 1977, and the site is now Scotland's largest nuclear clean-up and demolition project.

“What remains of this once-pioneering system,” its website reports, “is regarded today as one of the biggest hazards in the UK.”


Tagged categories: Funding; Government; Maintenance coating work; Nuclear Power Plants; Protective coatings; Steel

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (3/10/2011, 11:20 AM)

Amazingly shortsighted - this shell is the barrier they are trusting to remain intact during the entire decommissioning. Anyone want to place a small wager that it won't be completed in the projected 20 (more) years? What is the potential cost of a leak versus the cost of keeping up maintenance?

Comment from shane hirvi, (3/11/2011, 11:45 AM)

Tom, I'll wager that it runs over on the 4.2 billion dollars as well as running long on time. I'd have to say, the decision to not paint, it is a huge gamble that I'm rather happy I don't have to make. I can understand bowing to the pressures of a "bridge to nowhere," but this gambles with peoples' lives. Seems like you could squeeze 1.6 million out of 4.2 billion and have some piece of mind. Too often politicians decide what is important.

Comment from shane hirvi, (3/15/2011, 1:06 PM)

Given the recent nuclear issues, I bet that this is starting to look less and less "a ludicrous waste of public funds."

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