The end approaches for a research reactor

© HZB/S. Welzel

At the end of 2019, operation of BER II will be discontinued. Dismantling the facility will then likely take at least another ten years.

At the end of May, an information event about the “dismantling of the experimental reactor BER II” filled every last seat in the auditorium on the Lise Meitner Campus. The acting reactor manager and head of the dismantling project, Stephan Welzel, gave an overview of the progress of preparations. The decision to hold the event, aimed at HZB employees in Wannsee and Adlershof, came after submitting the application for “permission to decommission and dismantle the Berlin experimental reactor BER II”. HZB submitted this application on 24 April 2017 to the Berlin Senate Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection – an important milestone “upon which the dismantling officially entered its planning phase”, as

Thomas Frederking, commercial manager of HZB, stressed. With its application, HZB set out early on the administrative journey that must be made for a project as complicated and involved as dismantling a reactor. As decided by the HZB Supervisory Board in mid-2013, reactor operation and neutron research will cease at the end of 2019. After a post-operational phase of about three years, during which the fuel rods will remain in the reactor as they gradually become spent, the so-called decommissioning operation begins. Then, the reactor will be actually dismantled. “This requires approval in accordance with the German Atomic Energy Act,” says Welzel.

“We hope to receive this approval during the post-operational phase, so that we can get started three years after decommissioning.” The project team has already spent years making calculations and concepts for the dismantling. They ran model simulations to determine, for example, how strongly certain components in the reactor will have been activated by neutrons. This helps the project owners to plan the exact procedure for the dismantling itself and the handling of waste for disposal. The logistics will also have to be planned far in advance. Several scenarios have already been played through. One envisages the facility as being “nuclear fuel-free” after the post-operational phase, with the fuel rods stored at the interim storage site

Ahaus. It also includes setting up a so-called buffer store for the wastes, where several containers would be stored until they can all be removed together. A second scenario, which does not involve a buffer store, would require every transport container of dismantled materials to be taken away separately. Yet another possibility would be to start the dismantling even before the last fuel rods have been relinquished. “Every scenario requires a different approach to dismantling the facility,” says Stephan Welzel. “Safety components must of course remain in place while the fuel rods are still in the facility. We want to be prepared for all eventualities, and have to take them all into account in the approval process.”

“Overall, the project will run until the early 2030s,” the head of dismantling estimates, “where there are many external influences that we aren’t fully aware of yet, but which will still be time-critical.” This is where public relations comes in. At the information event, Ina Helms, head of the Communications department at HZB, presented ideas for dialogue-oriented communication and introduced the communication project manager for the dismantling of BER II, Hannes Schlender. “We will maintain a dialogue with all stakeholders and interested parties from politics, the neighbourhood and general society,” says Ina Helms. “That means we will listen, and we will accommodate the wishes of those involved in the process,” adds Hannes Schlender.

There are already cases demonstrating how public openness is beneficial in a dismantling project: the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht (HZG), for example, was highly communicative during the approval procedure for the dismantling of its research reactor. The success of this was manifest at the public consultation required by law before dismantling approval can be granted. Hannes Schlender was present at this consultation: “The citizens involved made it very clear from the beginning that, although they did not agree with the HZG on certain matters, through the dialogue process they were able to gain full trust in the centre and its responsible parties. If we can manage that, too, it would be a great success.”