Demolishing and decommissioning power plants

Currently Mississippi Valley decommissioning programme manager at Wood plc, Bill Hladick has seen it all in a career spanning nearly 40 years.

In the first article of an extended feature, he discusses the challenges facing the industry and the state of the market post-Covid.

Bill Hladick (Photo: Wood plc)
Can you tell us about Wood plc in the first instance and your own involvement in D&D (demolition and decommissioning)?

Wood is well known in the oil and gas industry upstream. The consulting side is involved with environmental permitting, civil engineering, flood management type work.

I’m known as the Mississippi Valley decommissioning programme manager. What that means is different on any given day. I wear different hats – project manager, marketer, proposal writer, contract manager and so on.

I have been 38 years in the industry, half of which I spent as a contractor, half with engineering firms and as an owner’s rep. Experience on both sides of the fence if you will, and currently I’m back on the consulting side involved with a lot of project development and large project management, not only fossil plants but old industrial facilities.

What is the current state of the D&D sector?

There is a lot going on and everyone is chomping at the bit after Covid to get projects up and running again. The market drivers for new work are there. Clients are selling properties, developing new process lines and industrial sites and because the scrap market is high there is perhaps this momentary emphasis to get power plant projects moving again.

I don’t know how long the scrap market will remain high but what we see on the owner’s rep engineering side are a lot of plants who are wanting to get projects on the books.

If that is an indicator of future work, it is a positive one.

There are of course market drivers that could stymie that. Like I said, the scrap market being one of them. Market confidence could potentially be another one.

When you talk about market confidence, what would affect that?

Everybody seems to be vulnerable to looking at the stock prices today and reacting either negatively or positively. Who knows, depending on who you listen to, how much negative press is there versus positive? I think this affects plans for market capital spending.

What has changed in what you are being asked to do in D&D?

There are quite a few things on the horizon that I see.

In the past we didn’t typically look for PCBs and paint. I’m talking now from the engineering side and there is a trend to look for and find PCBs and paint more often. And that’s going to affect the cost of demolition.

On more of a macro scale, there is a troubling trend from a safety perspective for fatalities and incidents on power plant projects, which is not good.

A disused coal fired power station in Germany is destroyed in a controlled explosion. (Photo: Reuters /Leon Kuegeler)

There are a few people – a lot of people in fact – in the NDA, Jim Graham, David Sinclair, who are steadfast in their convictions to help bring the industry up on the safety standpoint.

But to me, safety is rooted in control of work, which is project planning of course and execution in a methodical and professional way, and that is ultimately rooted in the philosophy of the management of a company.

So if companies are going to continue to do power plant projects, to succeed there is going to have to be a commitment from owners to really understand what is required.

And it amazes me that there is still big risk taking going on, you know. In the past 15 years, I would have thought over time we would see fewer and fewer contractors overstating the value of scrap, and cutting their number to the bone.

But there still seems to be a bit of that going on. Larger companies have wised up, perhaps they have always been wise. But there are still just enough people out there who are willing to take those risks, and it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous for them, dangerous for their workers, and dangerous for the industry.

I look forward to continued discussions on a collaborative basis, between contractors, competitors and others to improve the state of the industry.

Most demolitions are linear. There is a start and a finish, there is a lot of repetitiveness to the structure and that allows safer, controlled progress.

Power plants are just full of varying types of structures. Lots of tall structures, perhaps structures that were not built exactly as shown on drawings, and there are always unknowns, and more unknowns typically on a power plant than perhaps any other type of project - just because of the nature of the operation.

[This article is the first of a two-part feature. Check out the upcoming July-August issue of Demolition and Recycling International for access to part two.]

You said there are too many risks. does that mean there are too many of the wrong type of companies trying to chase contracts like these?

I don’t walk in their shoes, so I’m not quite sure of the reason.

There are really two major risk-taking drivers that happen at bid time.

The drivers being the scrap price, that deal lust that says ‘look at that, stainless is way up, if I can get this job started soon I can really make hay, I can cut my price by 10 or 15%’.

The other side is how much work the person has, and that is equally as important. Both end up with the same result. You are taking a project at a price that may not be viable in eight or nine or 10 or 18 months when the project is finally at the stage where major scrap revenues are rolling in.

What are the big differences between coal fired and nuclear?

I was involved in nuclear quite a while ago. Most recently for the past 10 to 15 years it has all been coal fired. I’ve kind of kept one toe in that market just to see what’s going on but I haven’t been engaged in projects really.

Smoke and steam billow from the Belchatow coal fired power plant in Poland. (Photo: Reuters/Kacpar Pempel)

The control of work requirements in nuclear, if an owner is involved or agency like the Department of Energy or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or someone like that, typically the control of work requirements are such that some of that risk taking is eliminated.

There’s obviously a good chance that much of the scrap won’t be recoverable on a plant, so the scrap revenue or scrap risk taking is also reduced.

What was the impact of Covid during the time you have been working on coal fired? Before demolition became an essential industry, you would have maybe a three-year contract that you have to stop work on. How do you manage that?

There’s certainly an impact. There were some projects that weren’t considered essential, so those didn’t move forward.

Those that were considered essential, there was of course the requirements for social distancing and masking, I did spend some time during that period on core of engineering projects, and of course the core of engineers is very diligent, in ensuring that safety precautions are properly followed by contractors.

So there are some projects where we had a lot of bodies forced to work together on things like abatement, pre-demolition abatement activities, where you might have 30 or 50 workers, and so that does kind of impact how you marshal people in and out and how you work together.

However once folks are in containment, they are in the best Covid protections you can have.

Do you have one particular job that stands out from your time in D&D?

There are several, for different reasons.

I was hired by a company to a project turnaround on a 1,600 MW plant in Georgia. That was a successful turnaround.

The project was in trouble because of some of the reasons I mentioned earlier, the crew hadn’t sealed up the water intakes, which caused some flooding in the basement, they hadn’t handled things in the proper sequence. So the schedule was awry, relations with the client were awry, safety was teetering.

It was a very good team of people, on the project, that we worked with, to turn the project around. But that was an example where we just needed to face the facts – the contractor was not acknowledging that the project was going to be extended by another 30 to 40% on the schedule and commensurately financially over budget, and so getting everyone to face the facts is sometimes the biggest difficulty.

Making the ownership of the contractor understand what is happening, the crew, to essentially acknowledge what is happening from a schedule standpoint and a performance standpoint and what needs to change, and deal transparently with the client.

It’s a matter of taking what’s inevitable and dealing with it today, rather than just pushing it down the road. 

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