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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Prendergast sums up the process: "The key was that we had a client that bought into the process and we mitigated against risks small and large by dealing quickly with problems as they arose. My advice to anyone is, the more you do upfront in terms of planning and detailing the complexity of migration, the better."

The must-haves at Sellafield

It is not difficult to imagine the potential risks of a maintenance project at Sellafield, the nuclear processing and former electricity generating site.

Sellafield is operated by Sellafield Ltd, which recently completed a complex project to replace parts of two pipes that are integral to the process of turning nuclear waste (liquor) into glass. The liquor is merged with glass beads and melted, then cooled and placed into tiny welded containers for long-term storage.

A project had been started to replace parts of the piping that transports the glass but had run aground due to problems with the process. At that point Neil Crewdson, head of projects at High Level Waste Plants, took over.

"Worker safety became more of a problem than had been expected"

“I became aware that morale was low because the project team were being blamed for not delivering on an impossible timescale,” he says.

The biggest risk was that the work would continue to disrupt the plant’s core function of reprocessing nuclear waste. The project also risked breaching safety standards by exposing members of the team to excessive levels of radiation.

“I had to argue the case for a six-week delay and then for an increased budget of £3.4m. Both were approved and made all the difference. Now the project team had a timetable that was achievable, albeit with 24-hour working,” says Crewdson.

Crewdson also identified the “must-haves” and “nice-to-haves”. Ninety-five per cent of the latter were reassessed and shelved so the team could work only on what was essential.

The timescale slippage resulted in tension between the operating unit and the project team. Worker safety became more of a problem than had been expected. Radiation levels in the vicinity of the pipe were such that special shielding had to be constructed and the time engineers spent on the site had to be monitored to ensure they did not exceed yearly exposure allowances.

A decisive approach enabled Crewdson and his team to move from a “distress” rating to satisfactory completion. It is an example of how a project which seriously jeopardises the normal work of an organisation can be re-energised through effective risk management.

Footnote: Matthew Prendergast was awarded Project Manager of the Year 2010 at the Association for Project Management Conference in October. Neil Crewdson was awarded Young Project Manager of the year for his work at Sellafield. ®

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