Nuclear fusion

Even a facility like Sellafield benefits from the architect’s range of skills

Aerial view
Aerial view

Six years ago I responded to a recruitment ad for Sellafield Ltd on the RIBA appointments website. I really wasn’t aware of what the nuclear industry was all about but I began to read about Sellafield and how its radioactive waste makes it one the most challenging sites in the world. Its decommissioning began in 2003 and has 100 years of work left due to the nature of the nuclear waste. 

At just over 6km2, Sellafield is the largest and most complex nuclear site in Europe and is home to more than 200 nuclear facilities and 1,000 plus buildings. Activities include hazard and risk reduction, decommissioning, reprocessing and nuclear waste management, and form the largest, most complex and challenging part of UK decommissioning. 

Since the 1990s Sellafield has been constructing a comprehensive suite of waste management facilities to treat and dispose of the waste from the commercial and decommissioning operations of repossessing. Sellafield is now in its decommissioning lifecycle and focused on high hazard reduction. While many of its facilities have passed their original design life, structural improvements have been carried out over the years. 

 

The processes performed at Sellafield drive the building layouts, which means every building at the site is different, which is the real challenge to designers

When I joined the business I discovered that most of the major projects were led by structural or civil engineers, with architects in a supporting role. The process performed there drives the building layouts, which generally require heavy engineering; this is why they have mainly been led by engineers. The differing processes mean that every building at the site is different, which is the real challenge to designers; there are over 1800 staff, including engineers in Cheshire, with a further 10,000 staff at Sellafield itself.  

To lead a major project at Sellafield you have to become a ‘responsible engineer’. This is a two-year process because, in the highly regulated nuclear industry, safety is paramount. As an architect it doesn’t mean I have to become a structural or civil engineer, rather I had to fully understand my role and responsibilities in order to design and build or alter a nuclear facility. While I am responsible for the civil, structural and architectural part of the project until its completion (projects take between 7-10 years), chartered structural and civil engineers help me. It’s a real multi-disciplined environment. 

I’ve been on my current project, Silo Maintenance Facility (SMF), for over three years and it is now on site with completion in 2018. This facility will assist with the retrieval of high hazard waste from existing silos and will operate 24 hours a day. When the project began in 2011 I got interested in what BIM could potentially offer it and with Sellafield Ltd spending £1.8bn annually I could see that it could give the British taxpayer real savings as well as improving the delivery of the project. The good news is that our use of BIM on SMF has led to the company adopting the system on all major projects.

Over six years in the nuclear industry I can see that architects add real value to the design of nuclear facilities, as we have the skills to design complex facilities and work in a multi-disciplined way. We feel comfortable leading the design processes as this is inherent in our architectural training. For me, the greatest reward is creating a facility which will go into operation and reduce the hazard to the UK from the legacy of nuclear waste.