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An innovative solution to nuclear waste

From manufacturing dredging tools for scallop trawlers to cleaning up decommissioned nuclear power stations

By Kathy Brewis . 03 May 2017

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Andy Barr’s core business used to be manufacturing dredging tools for scallop trawlers. Now he’s helping clean up decommissioned nuclear power stations

Over the next 120 years it is going to cost between £90 billion and £220 billion to deal with the UK’s existing nuclear waste. The clean-up operation at Sellafield in Cumbria alone, which is due to be complete by 2120, is costing the government £1.9 billion a year. The largest part of this figure relates to nuclear plants’ “sludge pools”.

Andy Barr is the managing director of Barrnon, an engineering company based in Appleby in Cumbria that produces engineered solutions to industrial processes. Not long ago his core business was manufacturing dredging tools for commercial scallop trawlers. Now he’s at the forefront of groundbreaking technology that is helping solve the nuclear waste problem.

Hundreds of tonnes of radioactive material from more than 60 years of operations are stored in four giant “ponds” at Sellafield. Each of these decaying structures is several times the size of an Olympic swimming pool. The contents used to be kept cool by constantly circulating water, but hundreds of cubic metres of sludge formed as the metal cladding surrounding the fuel rods corroded.

Barr wondered if this radioactive sludge might be dredged to the surface using the same sort of machinery he had developed for the scallop fishing industry. In response to an enquiry from Magnox, the contractor responsible for operating 12 UK nuclear power sites and one hydroelectric plant, which includes decommissioning them, he quickly prototyped a purpose-built system. He then demonstrated it to the sites’ owner, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

So far Barrnon has worked on the clean-up of the Hunterston A plant in Ayrshire. Barr is bidding for a contract to help clean up the Fukushima reactor in Japan and another in the US. But his dearest hope is to be allowed to get started closer to home, at Sellafield – once described as “the world’s riskiest nuclear waste site”. It was built on the Cumbrian coast in the late 1940s to manufacture plutonium for nuclear weapons, housed the world’s first commercial nuclear power station and eventually became a storage centre for waste from other reactors.

Barr’s imaginative, opportunistic and entrepreneurial activity was what made the judges of last year’s Real Innovation Awards decide he deserved the Alexander Fleming Serendipity Award, for a company that had capitalised on that rare thing, a truly serendipitous “lightbulb moment”. “If you’d told me a year ago we’d be doing what we’re up to now, I wouldn’t have believed you,’ says Barr.

Jeff Skinner, Executive Director of the Deloitte Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at London Business School, and one of the Real Innovation Awards judges, says: “It was the leap from scallop fishing to nuclear waste that left me reeling – Andy Barr chancing on the problem of reactor sludge, thinking, ‘Hey, I can do that,’ and then going for it. He simply wasn’t deterred by the improbability of being able to make the technology work.”

Skinner’s advice for would-be innovators: “Put yourself in the way of big problems – and when you spot one that you reckon you can solve, give it everything you’ve got.”

Perhaps you have a similarly inspiring story or you know of somebody who does? Get the recognition you deserve by entering the Real Innovation Awards.

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