Page last updated at 23:02 GMT, Tuesday, 19 May 2009 00:02 UK

Life as a nuclear decommissioner

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Sellafield


Stopping nuclear contamination at Sellafield is a complex task

Dressed in see-through PVC suits and bright yellow Marigold rubber gloves, they look like Michelin Men on a mission.

But this is not a spoof.

The members of this small group of specialists are taking part in a training exercise, gearing up for what is potentially one of the most dangerous jobs in the world - the dismantling and demolition of the most complex nuclear facility ever created.

"The suits are worn in highly contaminated environments to prevent the breathing of contaminated air," explains team manager Maurice Tierney as his men seal each others' suits with ordinary green sticky tape.

Intricate challenge

These days, neither electricity nor weapons are produced at the Sellafield nuclear plant.

Nevertheless, some 10,000 staff and 2,000 contractors work here - considerably more than the 8,000 or so people who worked in nuclear research and development during the industry's heyday, in the early 1980s.

Nuclear decommissioning workers dressed in PVC suits
Work routines are learnt through drills before entering contaminated areas.

They carry out very little productive work - instead, their job is positively destructive: they are demolishing long-since closed nuclear power plants and atomic weapons research facilities, many of them contaminated by nuclear waste after more than half a century of energy and weapons production.

The structures were initially erected without any serious thought about how they would eventually be taken down.

One is a 10-storey building with a 12-metre chimney stack on top, a concrete monstrosity that is truly as menacing as it looks.

Demolition required

The view from the roof of this former nuclear plant is breathtaking; to the east lies the Lake District national park, a favourite with tourists. To the west, the choppy Irish Sea.

Looking straight down from the building reveals something else; an intricate spaghetti of buildings and structures, pipe works and roads, clearly created with functionality in mind rather than to attract architectural admiration.

Getting the building down would normally be relatively easy, had it not been for the buildings around it, which could suffer from a straightforward explosive demolition job.

Add to that the complication of nuclear contamination, which has penetrated deep into the building's concrete and steel structure, and there is no wonder that it will take years before all traces of Sellafield and the UK's nuclear legacy waste have been removed.

The 120-metre tall building is clearly an eyesore, but where it currently stands it poses no threat to anyone.

At least, not yet.

The entire structure is crumbling and corroding after years of exposure to acid and other chemicals, so there is only one solution: it has to be demolished before becomes unstable.

But first, its murky interior must be cleaned out. That is the job at hand for the men in PVC suits.

Slow work

Armed with angle grinders and other tools, the men regularly enter atomic cells and caves, so contaminated by nuclear waste that everything in them, even the walls themselves, have been turned into hazardous material.

Decommissioning work at Sellafield
The work is hot and uncomfortable, and potentially very dangerous.

This is where they ply their trades - for tradesmen is what they are, such as metal workers or fitters.

Removing contaminated equipment from the cells and caves is only part of the job.

In many cases, they also have to chip and grind layers of concrete off the contaminated walls to make sure no nuclear waste escapes when it eventually comes to dismantling the building.

The work is slow; much slower than what you would normally see at an ordinary construction site.

It takes at least 15 minutes to get ready and change into the suits, each fitted with an independent supply of oxygen, and they can only be worn for a short while.

The suits are totally sealed, so all the sweat that is designed to reduce the body temperature, is trapped within the PVC suit, making it even hotter.

"Normally, if you're cutting up or grinding, you're getting wet, and you feel quite tired when you come out," says fitter Jordan Rumney.

"You can only wear this for anything from half-an-hour to an-hour-and-a-half, so it takes a lot longer to do things this way."

Special routines

It is also labour intensive. Inside the caves, the men always work in pairs who are supported by a team outside.

Dismantling the nuclear installations at Sellafield will take years.

In total, teams consist of eight or nine people, each with specialist jobs. Each team will enter cells and caves only about three times per week, so even small tasks can take a long time to carry out.

While working, each team member has a specific responsibility to carry out. How the work is done is well prepared through drills in training centres to make sure no time is wasted on site - and to make sure all safety requirements are met.

Some are dressing the chaps in the protective PVC suits, others monitor air panels to make sure the workers get enough oxygen.

When the workers are ready to come out, they need help showering any contaminated dust off their suits before they are assisted in getting them off.

Many things can go wrong; most notably, the workers may injure themselves with their tools. If they do, there are special procedures to follow to evacuate them, and special first aid routines to follow.

For instance, if someone cuts themselves with an angle grinder out in the real world, the key thing is to stop the bleeding.

Here, in the case of a cut, it is better to let it bleed since as long as the blood is coming out, the radioactive contamination cannot get into the body via the wound.

There are also strict controls and health checks once the workers are back outside the contaminated areas. Equipment is checked and double-checked every time it is taken to and from the site - though most of it is not moved at all.

Random urine and faeces samples are carried out to make sure the workers are not contaminated.

And yet, in spite of such harsh-sounding conditions, the men working in this team have all been here for years. Most of them have done this work for more than a decade, some of them for more than two.

For them, this is a steady job that pays better than comparable work in the construction industry.

Besides, the work they do is essential to clean up the mess left behind by decades of nuclear weapons and power production at Sellafield.

"I am proud of the work we do in this building," says one worker. "Even though we are taking it down."

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