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29th November 2023

The 2023 Smeaton medal has been awarded to Helen Wild of Sellafield, continuing the theme of engineering in hostile environments. Helen gave a presentation cover her career and the challenges of managing risk in decommissioning the UK's nuclear legacy.

Helen spoke with pride about being a chartered engineer and her enthusiasm for her work was evident. We congratulate her on receiving this award and wish her and the other younger engineers who joined us for the evening every success in their future careers.

The Speaker

The discussion was introduced by Helen Wild who is the Responsible Engineer (Civil, Structural & Architectural) for Magnox Swarf Storage Silo, Sellafield Ltd, Cumbria

Introductory Presentation

Sellafield Ltd are responsible for the complex task of decommissioning the Sellafield site in order to create a clean and safe environment for future generations. As the organisation works towards this goal, their historic facilities are being modified and are becoming operational once again in order to retrieve waste for safe long-term storage.  This has required acceptance of a short-term increase in risk, such as the introduction of new machinery and equipment increasing the load being applied to an aging structure, for the long-term high hazard risk reduction associated with getting the waste into safer storage.

The work at Sellafield is delivered under a spotlight from a number of different stakeholders, from regulators (the ONR and EA) to local government and the local community. Each of these stakeholder groups have differences in their viewpoints and priorities, the level of engineering knowledge, and their risk perception. These stakeholder groups may also have demands which are in conflict with each other; eliminating a risk which is intolerable to one group may introduce new risks that are intolerable to another. Helen referred to the need to consider the whole life cycle not just the current activities on the site as this is a very long term restoration project.

Managing the risks presented by hostile environments during decommissioning can often require innovation to determine a solution, but utilising innovative techniques or technologies can be inherently risky in itself and without operational experience they can be difficult to prove operationally safe. The risks associated with utilising emerging technology could be a commercial risk in terms of time and money being spent on a proposal that might not work, or it could be the introduction of an additional hazard as a result of unexpected or unpredictable behaviour.

Sellafield is world leading in what they do yet the environment in which they work cannot allow for any complacency as things can go wrong and there is a need to rebuild the hard earned trust with the various stakeholders.


The questions were addressed by discussion groups who through rapporteurs’ summary presentations made the following points:


Discussion point 1:


How can engineers ethically manage short term risk for long term high hazard and risk reduction?


It was noted that projects such as Sellafield provide an exciting and rewarding challenge for engineers. Setting the ethical framework is the purview of the Board, taking account of stakeholders views. In Sellafield’s case the principle stakeholders are NDA and government but there are others particularly important being the local community.  Having established a framework it is for engineers and scientists deliver within that but must challenge if it results in unexpected or perverse outcomes.

The nature of risk was considered at all tables and acceptance that zero risk does not exist. A view expressed was that the essence of all engineering is to increase risk in order to generate benefits, The difference between relative and absolute risk or human and economic risk also discussed. Maintaining a clear distinction between commercial risks and those associated with unexpected hazards was considered important as was thinking to the future and having the right records for the future management of risk.  Gaining acceptance of the risk can be achieved by providing benefits for the local community.

A large amount of focus is upon the site and challenges in remediation, but it needs to be recognised that its not just the risk on site but also in movement of waste and of external factors such a rising sea levels. Learning from Fukushima on the need to plan ahead would be valuable. There are also much broader issues such as decommissioning of nuclear warheads which need to be brought into consideration.  

It was acknowledged that the nuclear industry adheres to very high standards which can result in cost and timescale overruns. Is the nuclear power industry pricing itself out of existence? Where there is no alternative, something must be done, and the chosen solution is ALARP, where the residual risk shall be reduced as far as possible. Leaving it as it might feel safer, but may not solve the problem and could therefore ultimately be a higher risk.

Discussion point 2:


What strategies can organisations utilise to build trust?


There is still a deep lack of understanding of nuclear and the difference between the old redundant nuclear facilities and new nuclear power plant. All stakeholders need to be communicated with in simple clear terms so they gain a good understanding of the challenges and the opportunities rather than holding a perception of risks. Engineers are generally trusted and are in a good position to articulate the issues and solutions to a wide range of stakeholders.

There is a clear need to educate politicians and others who may be in role for relatively short periods and yet will be making key long-term decisions relating to these facilities.

Cumbria already a nuclear community and therefore their perception of risk is different from the general public perception. None the less being able to compare radiation risks to other common risks including other common radiation risks is useful to enhance understanding.

Reminding people of the 20 years of planning as well as the successful track record to date will help build trust. The role of TV and media and using trusted voices to explain and advocate for the project were proposed.


Discussion point 3:


How can engineers determine whether innovation is worth the risk?


Noting innovation is not invention but it can still carry risk. However assessing it against a more established approach will help articulate the benefits of innovation. Many and varied approaches were considered from modelling, BIM, virtual reality or digital twins as they can enable understanding and effectiveness of innovation. Technical innovation needs strong peer and testing but avoid the pitfall of too much review which can get in the way of progress.

Generally innovative work tends to be less risky than standard day-to-day work, because we think about it and review it more carefully. By contrast complacency on ‘standard’ jobs can leads to mistakes or increased risk. Most construction problems relate to human factors whether they be errors or a failure to take responsibility.

Innovations may have already been used and proved in another environment. The incremental improvement approach used in the offshore industry might be a useful model to emulate. Decommissioning arises across all major infrastructure industries with examples of deferral leading to serious hazard and early decommissioning also doing similar. Eg. Aberfan in 1966 (144 dead); Didcot boiler house collapse 2016 :(4 dead).


Forms of contract will determine incentives and therefore behaviours. Ultimately we need the

skills  and capability to talk to clients about both risks and benefits and enable them to make

good decisions. The meeting was delighted to learn that a Standard for Innovation

management exists ( ISO 56000:2020).

Speaker's Response

In response Helen articulated the need to consider absolute and relative risk and consider the harm to both people and the environment. In this instance it is not possible to ‘do nothing’ and therefore a need to quantify the long-term risk using the data that is available. Its is also vital to build trust with a range of stakeholders which involves being open and honest and particularly bring the regulator close so there is a good understanding of the decision making.

The local community accept the risk and recognise that there needs to be progress in the decommissioning for the benefit of future generations. None the less Sellafield has to be outward facing and giving back to a community that has to live with the risk.

Standards can lead to blinkered approach when innovation required and this enatils some acceptance of failure and learning from the experience. However, ‘fail safe’ is a necessity in this environment.

Non-technical innovation is equally important as the programme of work needs to be delivered efficiently and effectively. Younger engineers need face time to learn and develop and yet we now need to find ways of work that meet the expectations of a generation who now expect a more agile working environment.

Helen concluded by acknowledging that we are not all experts and that there is a need to be open to learning from others and collaboration across industry.


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