Yesterday we got the long-awaited decision from the Finnish Government: The licence for decommissioning of our research reactor FiR 1, which operated in 1962–2015 at the university campus in Otaniemi, Espoo.
The licensing phase of the FiR 1 decommissioning project has tested both VTT’s capability to fulfil the requirements and liabilities, but also the Finnish nuclear legislation, regulations and authorities’ guidelines. The exchange of experiences between VTT and authorities has led to improvements in the new Nuclear Energy Act and the YVL guides issued by the STUK. Different waste streams receive now appropriate attention in the national waste management activities, especially via improvements in licence conditions of the NPP waste facilities. The lessons learned during the decommissioning of FiR 1 are applicable to the preparations for the decommissioning of nuclear power reactors.
Waste management contracts are a must for VTT
Essential for the FiR 1 decommissioning project, and for fulfilling the legal prerequisites for the decommissioning licence, is the comprehensive contract on decommissioning services that we signed in March 2020 between VTT and Fortum. The contract covers the dismantling of FiR 1 and all necessary nuclear waste management services as well as the radioactive waste management for OK3 laboratory decommissioning. An industrial partner taking responsibility for waste management is invaluable for a research organization like VTT, which does not have its own nuclear waste management facilities. Presently, there is also no national option for such a mid-scale nuclear and radioactive waste stream (tens or hundreds of m3) in Finland, only for small radioactive waste streams from industry, medicine and research.
What would we do differently
Looking backwards, it is easy to see that having binding contracts for waste management in place already at the moment of the shutdown decision would have simplified planning and licensing for decommissioning, saving time and expenses. My feeling is that some of the questions in such contracts are so subtle that it simply takes time for them to mature into a level where all terms become agreeable. Examples of such issues are nuclear liability and the transfer of waste management obligation between licensees. Our process matured along with the progress in materials characterization and technical planning. On the commercial side, we used a negotiated procedure to achieve a concrete and structured negotiation on all matters affecting the call for tenders, and a very comprehensive set of background information for the tenderers.
In general, 2020 was a year of important contracts, since we concluded also the spent nuclear fuel transport and transfer contracts in fall 2020. Some services have been contracted using direct procurement, because of the limited availability of service providers in the market (e.g. for technical or ownership related reasons) or for security reasons. We have also used normal public (open or restricted) procedures in selecting the EIA and dismantling planning consultants in 2013 and 2016.
Learning together from FiR 1
FiR 1 and the OK3 laboratory have been key nuclear energy training and research facilities for three generations, and now they serve as a pilot in the decommissioning phase.
In Finland, operators are currently obliged to arrange their waste management. This approach is incomplete in the sense that it might leave out minor waste streams from research institutes (like VTT), universities, hospitals, and industry. However, a task force led by MEAE has elaborated recommendations for further development of the national radioactive waste management, which has led to improvements for instance in the licence conditions of the NPP facilities, allowing more flexible acceptance of waste streams from other operators.
It is obvious there is significant potential to optimize the economy of decommissioning of standard type nuclear facilities, like TRIGA research reactors or common types of NPP’s, by using a specialized decommissioning organization, which can multiply the know-how or the product. Still, as a research organization with a single nuclear facility, VTT has decided to build its relevant competence and capitalize on the accumulating experiences. The dECOmm ecosystem is our vehicle for developing new services to the international decommissioning market together with several Finnish companies. FiR 1, while being a nuclear facility, can provide a small-scale, easy-to-access testbed for the developed technologies. By involving a spectrum of companies with different backgrounds, all partners learn about the specifics of the nuclear domain, like regulations and quality requirements. Important in decommissioning is to understand where and when requirements can be relaxed.
Senior Scientist, VTT