Cleaning up for the future

The SAFEGROUNDS Learning Network aims to encourage good practice in the health, safety and environmental aspects of managing contaminated land on civil nuclear sites and defence sites.

Organisations are becoming more sustainable in their outlook as accountability to their stakeholders grows and the hard lesson left by bad publicity is learnt. Two industries that have been particularly aware of this are the nuclear and defence industries. Although much was once made of their secrecy, defence and in particular nuclear operators are now much more accessible, engaging in dialogue with stakeholders, whether environmental bodies, regulators or consultative organisations. One issue much discussed is how to manage contaminated land.

Historically, little effort has been made to clean up contaminated land on nuclear and defence sites. As has been typical of many industry sectors, there has simply been little reason to do so. Although regulations have long been in place and managed by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the remediation of contaminated land, whether radioactive or not, was previously not considered a high priority. Indeed, even government legislation in the form of the contaminated land regime did not extend to radioactivity. Add to this a lack of guidance in this area, and it is hardly surprising that little has been done historically to manage used land.

However, the estimated 4.4 million new dwellings required in the UK by 2020 and a government pledge to build 60 per cent of new housing on brownfield sites has brought the recovery of all kinds of contaminated land to the fore. Legislation is also forcing industry to take ownership of the pollution it creates. The recent introduction of regional land contamination registers, compliance notices and the risk of significant penalties for those who fall foul of them, places an impetus on industry to deal with dormant land that previously it would have been quite happy to forget. And, of course, excavation to landfill sites is no longer a viable option. The Landfill Directive has seen landfill tax spiral and the establishment of punitive rates for the disposal of contaminated materials. The nuclear and defence industries are now to be monitored as the government updates contaminated land legislation to include radioactivity for the first time.

It is against this backdrop that in 1999 a feasibility study was commissioned to investigate the need for best practice guidance for the management of contaminated land on nuclear and defence sites. Contaminated land was being increasingly recognised as a significant liability but few operators were clear how it should be approached. Contaminated land in the nuclear sector is more complex and onerous and certainly in need of very much longer strategic planning and operations than would be usual for other industrially contaminated development sites. Even though the issues faced are common across all industry sectors, their severity is potentially that much greater. Contamination often results from a long legacy of operation and there is a complicated regulatory structure. Furthermore, there are potentially large financial liabilities and most importantly there is a high level of stakeholder concern. The study found that guidance was needed, in different forms and for different sectors of the nuclear industry, the regulators and the public.

It was also recommended that a learning network or discussion forum was the best means of providing guidance and advice, and so the SAFEGROUNDS Learning Network was born.

The SAFEGROUNDS Learning Network is managed by CIRIA with the support of a project team and is sponsored by the DTI through the Liability Management Group’s Safety Issues Task Force (SITF). The purpose of the SAFEGROUNDS Learning Network is to encourage good practice in the health, safety and environmental aspects of managing contaminated land on civil nuclear sites and defence sites. It is concerned with radioactively contaminated land, chemically (non-radioactively) contaminated land, and land with both radioactive and chemical contamination. It is a collaboration between nuclear liability holders and the regulators, contractors and consultants to the industry, and other stakeholders representing public and wider environmental interests.

Participants in the project as well as those with a more peripheral interest are able to keeps lines of communication open through the SAFEGROUNDS website ( Visitors to the site can find out about events and meetings, download publications including guidance documents, access links to other useful sites and feedback on their own experiences. In fact the feedback has been used extensively in the consultation on key principals for managing contaminated land.

Also available from the website as a pdf download is SAFEGROUNDS – Good Practice Guidance for the Management of Contaminated Land on Nuclear and Defence sites. The aim of this has been to provide a guidance document containing key principles and basic guidance for all sites, and more specific guidance for the nuclear sites; and defence sites for which a change of ownership and/or use is planned. However, work on the guidance did not finish with its publication. Conceived as a living document, it is planned that the guidance will evolve with changes in requirements, legislation and regulations.

Benefits resulting from the project have been significant. First and foremost the industries concerned now have much better consensus on how contaminated land should be remediated. Regardless of the severity of the contamination or the type of business, organisations now have a framework that can be applied safe in the confidence that they are implementing techniques consulted upon by the industries and crucially, their stakeholders.

However, not all of the benefits are so tangible. Certainly both industries have gained tremendously from the communicative process. For the first time, representatives of different sections of industry have come together to discuss controversial issues. Each has learned to consider key issues from different viewpoints and even understand the others’ stance. The lines of communication which have now been created will be used and built upon time and time again as the industries undertake dialogue on different issues that present themselves in the years to come.

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