Putting decommissioning on the map
Reactors and robots, paratroopers and planes - the Harwell site in Oxfordshire has seen it all. Soon to be hailed as an international business centre, the area is currently undergoing a thorough liability review. In the second part of the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) series, Beverly La Ferla learns how a new computer mapping tool has facilitated a site assessment for chemical and nuclear ground contamination.
Once a pioneering centre for nuclear energy, and before that an RAF base which
supplied troops for D-Day, Harwell currently houses the headquarters of the
UKAEA. The centre has been charged with decommissioning the on-site nuclear
reactors and other facilities used for the UK’s nuclear research and development
programme in a safe and environmentally sensitive manner. The objective: to
restore the site for use as an international business centre.
Three years ago, the Site Survey Project was born, headed by Clark Colyer,
senior project manager at UKAEA. He put together a team that could cover both
the historical records aspect and the assessments of land quality, and combine
these to provide a comprehensive report on the possible presence of contaminants
throughout the site.
Database issues soon took priority: the project had to incorporate a quality-controlled,
auditable procedure for collecting, collating, retrieving and interpreting the
environmental survey results and cross referencing these with the history of
the buildings and the site. UKAEA commissioned ESiT Ltd (Effective Solutions
with Information Technology) to develop a data management system called IMAGES
(Information Management And Geographical Evaluation System), which comprised
a number of database modules and desktop tools.
The database modules were created to record a range of environmental data types,
such as groundwater quality monitoring data, ground investigation data, sample
analysis results, radiation survey data, and building history in the form of
documents and images. The databases that contain information with a geographic
component were designed to interface seamlessly with Arcview GIS (Geographic
Information Systems), a computer system which enables a pictorial representation
of the data to be displayed.
UKAEA were delighted with this tool and the project started to gather pace
after February 1999. Malcolm Crook, environmental records manager, was put in
charge of the historical side with Grant Baldwin as project operator feeding
survey information to Sandra Owsett, GIS operator. This three-man team, headed
by Clark Colyer, started to put together an assessment of potential liabilities
on the site – a task which they have almost completed.
Malcolm’s extensive experience in records management made him the ideal person
for his job. “I delve into the archives for records that gives me an idea
of what the buildings or areas of land were used for and extract information
on potential areas of contamination,” he says enthusiastically, “The
history of the site goes back to when it was an operational RAF base in 1937,
complete with dispersed runways and practice bombing areas.”
Bought for just £11,000 by the Ministry of Supply (now the Ministry of
Defence), the site was an operational training unit for bomber command. During
the second World War, it played a vital part in sending paratroopers and light
forces to Normandy on D-Day, an accomplishment it is still proud of today.
“The buildings, originally built for the RAF, have been converted through
the years for other uses,” Malcolm explains, “For example, one RAF
barracks block was turned into laboratories in Harwell’s nuclear physics heyday
and is now office accommodation.”
A total of 627 records on all the buildings ever constructed at Harwell – including
general purpose huts, air-raid shelters and toilet blocks – contributed to the
historical side of the database, and this information was then used by Grant
to select areas that needed to be sampled for possible contamination.
A number of surveys have been done on the site. Geo-physical techniques, which
measure the change in electrical conductivity of the soil, have uncovered objects
like bullet cartridges and flares, which have been buried for decades. The radiation
data was gathered using a Global Positioning System (GPS) to pinpoint areas
of interest and chemical surveys have involved digging ‘trial pits’ down to
three metres to collect samples for laboratory testing for contaminants. The
pits are also given the once over with radio and metal detectors, a CAT scanner,
and a photo-ionisation detector which determines the levels of volatile organic
carbons (VOCs) present.
These results, complete with location tags, are then fed back into the database
by Sandra. Clark Colyer explains: “Because the historical records and sampling
data are held electronically in a way that’s retrievable and geographically
traceable, we can combine them to make maps showing areas of potential liability.
It would be nearly impossible without the program – we’d have to use at least
one aircraft hangar to store all the files that we’ve generated in the last
After three years of extensive searching, the surveys have brought up nothing
unusual, leaving Harwell on course for unanimous approval as an international
business centre. The mapping team is two-thirds the way through the Site Survey
Project and hopes to finish it next year. After that?
Well, there are plenty more nuclear sites being decommissioned in the UK and
many others who could apply the techniques the Harwell team have pioneered to
return land that has been used for industrial purposes to green field status.
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