Spring 2020

Under the surface with Ian Smith

We meet Ian Smith, principal engineer at James Fisher Nuclear (JFN), who’s currently playing a key role in JFN’s biggest decommissioning project to date – SGHWR at Winfrith, Dorset.

Tell us a bit about yourself

Growing up in North Yorkshire I loved cricket and woodwork and I always thought I’d end up as a design and technology (DT) teacher, but when I was at school I managed to get a bit of work experience at a company in the nuclear industry and was advised to channel my energies into engineering..  It wasn’t long into my Masters degree in mechanical engineering at Loughborough University when I realised I would never have enjoyed a teaching career.

If you ask my colleagues, they’ll tell you my job is my real passion, but outside of work I enjoy watching motorsport and playing village cricket in the summer months.

How did you come to join the James Fisher group?

I returned to RMS for my university placement year. At the time, RMS had an oil and gas division and a nuclear division, which is where I ended up. RMS was subsequently acquired by James Fisher and the nuclear division became part of James Fisher Nuclear (JFN), and I was thrilled when JFN offered me a graduate position as mechanical design engineer. In fact, I sat my last exam on the Thursday and started at JFN the following Monday. I’ve been here ever since, working my way up to engineering manager and then principal engineer at JFN.

Tell us a bit about your job

I am responsible for the technical delivery of projects (or parts of projects) leading a team of 10-15 engineers working on solutions to customer problems. I am currently leading part of JFN’s single biggest decommissioning project to date, working out the best way to safely and efficiently break up and remove the Steam Generating Heavy Water Reactor (SGHWR) core at Winfrith.

The project, for Magnox, involves cutting up the SGHWR and packaging the waste into appropriate containers for storage. Although this sounds relatively straightforward, the radioactivity of the waste means everything has to be done remotely, and I am not sure much thought was put into decommissioning the reactor when it was designed back in the early 1960s! For instance, key features are difficult to access and every bolt head has been welded on – meaning they cannot be easily removed with standard tooling, but instead have to be machined off.

JFN is responsible for the design and build of the whole project – from the structural modifications required to get our robots in place, right through to providing all the maintenance equipment necessary to support the facility. My team is responsible for the core segmentation aspects of the project, developing the robots and tooling which will be used to cut up the core of the reactor. This means we work on modifying off-the-shelf power tools so they can be deployed from a large industrial robot. The unique nature of the work means we spend quite a bit of our time trialling and adjusting the tooling to ensure it is fit for purpose. It is probably every engineer’s dream job! But alongside the fun stuff, there’s quite a bit of technical underpinning work required (complex calculations, paperwork and safety tests) to ensure our designs comply with legal and industry requirements.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I really enjoy the sheer variety of the work I have to do, and because JFN has the unique capability to work on every stage of a project from design and manufacture to testing and installation, I get the job satisfaction of seeing our designs successfully manufactured and put into service.

My career highlight – so far – has been working as lead engineer for the development of the RODMAN II manipulator which helps to recover dropped fuel rods within the Magnox Reprocessing Facility at Sellafield. We worked very closely as a team to deliver ahead of time, and on budget, a solution which was rated excellent in terms of technical achievement, and positive customer feedback.

What does the future hold?

I will be busy for the next couple of years seeing the SGHWR project through to successful completion. We are due to start initial integration testing later this year which is the final stage before we get to install everything onsite. It is fantastic to see three years of hard work on this project starting to come together now.

This is a very interesting time in the nuclear industry, with several reactors being readied for decommissioning, and hopefully the experience and knowledge JFN has gained on the SGHWR project will put us in an excellent position to win a share of this future work – both in the UK and internationally.

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