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Transforming Sellafield

Sellafield poses one of the UK’s most complex challenges, and many stakeholders rely on us for diverse reasons.

For example, our communities rely on us to keep them safe. The UK (and beyond) relies on us to reduce hazard and risk. We play an important role in the nuclear industry worldwide.

As our revenues fall, the government needs us to deliver increasing value for money. Impending changes to the Sellafield mission offer us a real opportunity to do things differently, and to build on our achievements to better meet those needs.
It won’t be easy, but transforming Sellafield will create a positive impact for our organisation, for our local communities and for the UK as a whole.

Sellafield has a rich history, and has adapted a number of times to respond to changing national priorities. Our first role as an inspection site for munitions during World War II gave way just a few years later to the production of plutonium, in support of the atomic weapons programme. Reactors, ponds, waste silos and support facilities were constructed, and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (owners and operators of the site at that time) put in place all the processes and management systems needed to support this new mission.

Fast-forward to the end of the 1950s, and the site was called upon to deliver a new national objective – the production of electricity through nuclear power. Calder Hall was built, along with an additional pond and silo and various support buildings. Physical structure aside, the organisation had to change some of its ways of working too, to accommodate this new work. When the UK Government gave the go-ahead to the then site owner/operator British Nuclear Fuels Ltd to reprocess used nuclear fuel from reactors around the world, Sellafield generated a substantial income for the national economy. Once again, the organisation and its infrastructure adapted to respond to the changing site mission.

It is relatively easy to look back at change, and the benefit of hindsight allows us to see the outcomes of those transformations over the past seven decades. It is more difficult to look ahead and predict the extent and impact of the changes yet to come. This is where we find ourselves: on the cusp of the next chapter of Sellafield’s story.

The nationally important mission for the site now is the clean-up of the facilities that have supported the site’s previous roles. These buildings were not built with decommissioning in mind, and they represent some of the highest hazards and risks in the country. In addition, we have a mission coming to an end – within the next four years, reprocessing operations will cease in both the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (better known as Thorp) and the Magnox Reprocessing Plant and we will move into routine high hazard retrievals and decommissioning. We are in the fortunate position where we can see already how our business is changing, and we are taking steps now to prepare for it.

First and foremost, our priority is the safe and secure stewardship of the Sellafield site, and the delivery of our mission. Our ambition is to transform Sellafield so that it is recognised as a leading nuclear enterprise and as a national asset, while holding this core purpose at the heart of everything we do. Transforming Sellafield will mean we make our communities and environment safer sooner and demonstrate our nuclear capability for a longer-term future. At the same time, we want to support a positive and sustainable impact on our regional economies. We are building on some noteworthy achievements as we transform. For example, we have removed the last of the fuel from our Pile Fuel Storage Pond, and removed some of the highest hazards from the First Generation Magnox Storage Pond for the first time. We have also built a new ventilation stack, or chimney, which meets newer and safer standards and allows us to begin removing some of our older stacks – removing risk and changing the Sellafield skyline.

Our forthcoming change in mission is an opportunity to think differently. We are transitioning from reprocessing into routine high hazard retrievals and wider decommissioning activities – but at the same time we must become more efficient and agile, while remaining safe and secure. Reducing the highest levels of risk at Sellafield is the biggest environmental clean-up in Europe, perhaps in the world. This means operating as a remediation and waste management company rather than as an energy or reprocessing organisation. Transforming Sellafield will help us remove high hazard faster. This is because simplified ways of working and clearer priorities mean we can get work done more easily. We will also reskill and redeploy resources, following the end of reprocessing, to accelerate our high hazard mission. Transformation is a wide-ranging ambition, and will affect our working practices, our structures, and our supply chain relationships.

It will be important to simplify the way we work with our supply chain, to make it easier to do business with us and to reduce as much red tape as possible for everyone.

Our day-to-day work at Sellafield is delivered through a combination of what we do using our own in-house expertise and what we buy from our supply chain. We know that the balance of this approach will likely change over time. As we finish the reprocessing mission, we may choose to do more to accelerate hazard reduction instead; in the longer-term we might want to do less in-house and instead help to grow a larger supply chain that can exploit wider commercial opportunities and in turn help to grow and diversify our local economies.

As we transform, we want to find ways to work more collaboratively with our supply chain, so that everyone working at or with Sellafield knows that they are part of an ‘extended enterprise’. It will be important to simplify the way we work with our supply chain, to make it easier to do business with us and to reduce as much red tape as possible for everyone. We’ve seen early progress on this recently, as we’ve agreed with our owner, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, to remove the potentially onerous burden of intellectual property ownership from all but a few pertinent contracts. This will benefit the majority of our suppliers, who had identified this as an issue and who will now retain their own intellectual property.

Within our own organisation we are looking at how we do work and making sure that every activity is helping us to deliver our priorities, and adding value. As such, the backbone of our transformation programme is the creation of four value streams. This simply means that we are aligning all of our effort and resources to the four core streams of work at Sellafield; the retrieval of fuel from our ponds and silos, the remediation and clean-up of the site, the management of spent fuel, and the management of special nuclear material. By arranging our work around these streams, we can make sure our continuous improvements are the right ones and that we are investing time and money on what really matters.  We are also looking at the business processes that help us work better and faster – simplifying our work, for example, and cutting unnecessary red tape. This way we can get work done faster and more efficiently, and remove hazard and reduce risk as quickly as possible.

We will build an agile organisation that is the right shape and has the right skills to move fast and respond both to opportunities and issues. We will work more closely with our supply chain, and encourage innovative thinking to find new and better solutions to our complex challenges. Transforming Sellafield will take us through uncharted territory. Transformation is about reinventing an organisation, rather than following a sequence of defined steps to reach a detailed future state. Transformation can be unpredictable, and it is certainly iterative – that is to say, the next steps of the journey are uncovered as the organisation transforms. When future generations, with the benefit of hindsight, look at this chapter of Sellafield’s story, they will see a site that no longer poses a risk to the environment, a site that sits as part of a thriving and diversified economy, and a site that can respond to whatever challenge comes next.