RVA’s expertise highlighted in industry magazine

The specialist expertise of RVA Group has been highlighted in leading industry publication Process Engineering. In the March – April 2011 issue, RVA considers the evermore challenging arena of process plant decommissioning…

“The difficult economic conditions of recent times have affected widespread processing sectors with quite overwhelming results. Unprecedented pressures have been placed on chemical, petrochemical, pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies across the globe, and very few have proven recession-resistant.

This is not to suggest there will be a permanent exodus of the processing industry, even in the UK alone. However it cannot be ignored that the number of production facilities being mothballed, rationalised or permanently closed down remains staggering. The specialist area of decommissioning may therefore be a great step into the unknown for most organisations, yet it is perhaps equally an inevitability for many.

The challenge is how to deal with the decommissioning – and in many cases decontamination, dismantling and demolition – of facilities safely, whilst at the same time cost-efficiently and with minimal environmental impact.

It should not be expected that the majority of businesses are competent to proceed with such projects without specialist external guidance. Decommissioning is not always a straightforward process and cannot be viewed merely as an extension of normal operations or the reverse of commissioning and construction. Nor should it be rushed in an attempt to achieve an accelerated exit. Decommissioning is an inherently hazardous activity and should be managed by appropriately experienced professionals, and the most important way to ensure a project’s success is getting the team right from the start. A specific set of skills and competencies is required to ensure the management of safety is proficiently catered for, and that the achievement of safety excellence is at the top of the ‘to do’ list.

The careful use of an organisation’s own engineering and production staff is in most cases a positive and value-adding move. Effective decommissioning is underpinned by a thorough preparatory and planning process whereby assets, procedures, decontamination and isolation details are comprehensively documented on an ongoing basis so that everything can be accounted for, and the plant can be brought to the required ‘known state’. No one will know this plant-specific information better than the people that have been running it, so key personnel should be involved from the outset.

However projects of this nature and scale tend to lie beyond most companies’ usual remit, and there will be areas of expertise that cannot possibly be fulfilled in-house – it is not reasonable to expect a skilled production manager for example, to become a qualified decommissioning engineer overnight. Instead the knowledge-based management support of external engineering consultants should be sought, so that any given project and its inherent risk, is competently managed.

By law, all UK demolition projects must be carried out in accordance with Construction Design Management (CDM) regulations. Revised in 2007, the regulations are not just a matter of paperwork compliance. Instead they govern the planning, coordination and management of projects to secure the health, safety and welfare of all involved. A competent and relevantly experienced CDM coordinator must therefore be appointed to oversee the project in this respect, and ensure consistency of standards.

Outside of the UK, whilst the legislative terms and job titles may differ, the principles, roles and responsibilities remain the same – manage safety to the highest achievable standards.

Beyond this there is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Every project has to be assessed on its own merits to ensure that a suitably skilled project team – comprising demolition, explosives, chemical, structural and mechanical engineering experts for example – is assembled for the job.

Because the decommissioning process is frequently brought about due to site closure or corporate rationalisation, it is commonly viewed as an unwelcome event and as a consequence, minimal resources are often allocated to what is an incredibly complex and high-risk activity. This can result in poor environmental, health and safety (EHS) performance, and ultimately commercial failure.

Even with the best intentions at heart, when money is tight some companies will take shortcuts, but the global downturn doesn’t mean that hazards are any less onerous, or that legislation can be flaunted. Safety should always be the number one priority.

Safety plans should be compiled in conjunction with other contractual documentation to ensure a cohesive output that does not conflict with risk management and the goal to achieve EHS excellence. Independent and specialist auditing of sites and methodology further helps to ensure best practice, but operations should be reviewed and revised as site works progress because ‘change of state’ can be rapid.

Organisations will understandably be focused on closing down their factories and plants in the swiftest and most cost-effective manner possible, due to the financial pressures that will no doubt have led to the said situation. However in truth a large majority of clients will not know where to turn next.

A feasibility and option study should provide a clear view as to the true liability, or indeed opportunity, of a decommissioning project. The findings and specialist recommendations given by independent experts with an experienced ‘demolition mindset’, could then provide companies with sufficient data and indeed confidence to pursue an innovative route that they perhaps previously deemed impossible, or may even have been wholly unaware of.

Sometimes dismantling elements of a plant for scrap whilst mothballing remaining structures is the preferable route, whereas in other scenarios complete site clearance proves the safest and optimum financial solution. Not only can direct liabilities such as hazardous material containment, security and maintenance costs, and local authority building rates be removed, but in some instances it is even possible to generate sufficient funds from scrap materials to completely cover the cost of the project.

Clearly not all decommissioning work will be self funding or cash generative, but cost-effective solutions can be devised that will help to mitigate a financially difficult situation. The recession has caused many companies to postpone important dismantling and decommissioning projects, as they simply deem them unaffordable, however they will have be tackled at a later date and in most cases at an increased cost.

The goal should always be to maximise return on assets where possible and indeed safe to do so. However factors such as plant age, former process, recovery cost, testing, market forces and commercial competition will all form part of the decision as to what should and should not be salvaged. In some instances it is efficient to recover individual items of plant for resale, however in other circumstances the dismantling of entire processes for reinstallation elsewhere, is possible.

Most importantly, organisations need an early project cost magnitude indication. This information can then be used to compile sanction grade estimates, funding applications and even determine the programme and extent of a project. Once again, specialist expertise and commercial understanding is invaluable in this respect, as factors such as plant resale value, scrap and credit recovery, market conditions and the possible effect of legislative changes, need to be incorporated alongside the direct project costs. However it is crucial that confidentiality, supply chain independence and trust are assured from the outset, so as to protect the commercial security of those involved.

Overall, making use of external expertise should be seen as a value-adding and team strengthening exercise, rather than a loss of control. Furthermore the sooner a specialist consultancy can get involved, the greater the benefit derived. Because it is the duty of the project management and engineering experts to provide safe, environmentally sound, commercially secure and cost-effective outcomes to project, companies can continue to do what they do best – run their business.

Because increasingly larger and more sophisticated world-scale installations are reaching the end of their life – and because legislation and environmental pressures are becoming evermore stringent – it could be argued that decommissioning is becoming an evermore complex practice.

Yet ever-advancing technology and improved knowledge does mean that project solutions are increasingly innovative, cost-effective and safe. The use of explosives for example is now much more precise, and specifically designed equipment is now commonly used to access hazardous areas where previously operatives may have been unavoidably placed at risk.

With an almost bizarre twist, preparing plant and machinery for dismantling and demolition can be less onerous than actually operating it throughout its life cycle, so long as the company has adequately planned for the situation and the best team is assembled for the job.”

To view the full article in print, visit http://digital.centaur.co.uk/processengineering/pe_032011/