Nuclear powerDecommissioning aging nuclear reactors

Published 11 August 2017

Since the dawn of the nuclear era seventy-five years ago, the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) has helped develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Today, commercial nuclear reactors supply nearly 20 percent of U.S. electricity. Now, ANL’s Decontamination and Decommissioning (D&D) Program is helping in decommissioning aging nuclear facilities.

Since the dawn of the nuclear era seventy-five years ago, when the world’s first nuclear chain reaction ignited at the University of Chicago, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory has built up a legacy developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes. For evidence, look no further than today’s commercial nuclear reactors, which evolved from Argonne reactors’ designs and experiments to now suppling nearly 20 percent of U.S. electricity.

That legacy comes full circle through Argonne’s Decontamination and Decommissioning (D&D) Program, which has led the way in decommissioning nuclear facilities at the lab and around the world for over forty years.

“Argonne was one of the first sites that decommissioned a significant number of facilities beginning in 1977. We helped the DOE and the industry get their legs under themselves on the decommissioning process,” said Larry Boing, an Argonne decommissioning subject matter expert with over 38 years of experience.

ANL says that along with several small-scale projects, Argonne’s D&D team has led the decommissioning of nine large-scale facilities at Argonne, including the Experimental Boiling Water Reactor (EBWR), an early prototype of reactors used for power generation, and Argonne’s Chicago Pile 5 (CP-5), a research reactor that provided neutrons, tiny particles that exist within atoms, for experiments for over twenty years.

Today, Boing and his team have broadened their original scope and have grown into providing expert technical support, knowledge management and other training to national and international groups looking to do their own decommissioning projects.

As a spin-off of this work, Argonne organizes and directs a team of decommissioning experts who, over the last twenty years, have trained over 2,400 people from 65 countries on the proper steps for decommissioning, from safe shutdown, licensing issues, project management to waste management and environmental assessments, up to and including conducting final site radiation surveys.

Most recently, Argonne has expanded to the international arena, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the central intergovernmental forum for co-operation in nuclear science. The laboratory has also engaged regions in Asia, North America and Europe.

“The importance of the training we provide cannot be overstated, especially when you consider our aging nuclear workforce, the slow and gradual decline in the number of people graduating with nuclear engineering or health physics degrees and the shortage of college programs that specifically address decommissioning,” Boing said.