Cooperation for the post-Fukushima era

21 June 2011

International cooperation on nuclear safety will come on many fronts in response to the Fukushima accident. In September a draft action plan will be presented by the IAEA, which could include a more prominent role for industry.


Representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) 151 member states have gathered this week at its Vienna headquarters for a top-level discussion of the Fukushima accident, which the head of the agency, Yukiya Amano, described as "one of the most serious and complex disasters which human beings have ever had to deal with." He outlined a number of steps the IAEA could take in response, given approval from its membership.


One could be the universal application of IAEA safety standards as internationally agreed benchmarks "for what constitutes a high level of safety," with those standards relating to multiple severe hazards like earthquakes and tsunami being reviewed within one year. Attention should be focused also on standards relating to back-up power supplies, cooling water supplies, used fuel cooling and special protection for plants with more than one reactor.


Extra system of safety reviews


Amano also suggested that the safety of every nuclear power plant in the world should be reviewed, first by each country's own safety authorities but with a second opinion coming from IAEA "to add credibility and transparency and make the process more effective." The IAEA reviews could come on a randomised basis to cover the whole industry in the course of a few years.


These two waves of reviews would come in addition to industry's own ongoing program of operational peer reviews, organised confidentially by the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) since 1989 and its US sister organisation the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) since 1979.


The IAEA also offers a review service for member states' regulatory systems and Amano said he wanted a review of Japanese arrangements to take place in 2012 as a follow-up to one held in 2007. A fundamental principle for nuclear regulation is sufficient independence, for example from industry or government, and the Japanese system has faced widespread criticism on this point due to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency's position within the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.


Amano would also like to expand the kinds of technical information and analysis the IAEA is able to provide in emergency situations, which is now "largely limited to distributing information validated by the country concerned to all other member states."


A declaration came from the conference delegates yesterday recognising the global need to increase emergency preparedness, possibly through the creation of 'rapid reaction capacity'. In this context the IAEA also needs to strengthen cooperation with the various national bodies, non-governmental bodies and nuclear plant operators in addition to government contacts the IAEA usually liaises with.


Industry recognition


One item in the declaration emphasised "the responsibility of the nuclear industry and operators in the implementation of nuclear safety measures." It called on "them and their associations to fully support and actively contribute to international efforts to enhance nuclear safety..."


Alongside the national delegations, two industry speakers were invited to take the stage today at the IAEA's Vienna headquarters: WANO's chairman Laurent Stricker; and the director general of the World Nuclear Association, John Ritch.


Stricker said his organisation is preparing to grow in size and strength in response to Fukushima. WANO has already asked the operators of every nuclear power plant in the world to take "specific actions to verify their ability to deal with a station blackout or a beyond-design-basis event like fire or flood." The body has received responses on that from every power plant except Fukushima Daiichi and Daini, and the results are under analysis at WANO's London coordinating centre. "Procedure revision is needed for about one third of the units and more than ten per cent need to improve equipment availability," said Stricker. More WANO recommendations are to be issued to operators soon on used fuel storage.


The body may also get tougher. It will "define what is expected of WANO members and the follow-up on members that are not fully participating." Improvements to the organisation are to be laid out at its biennial meeting in Shenzhen this October.


Stricker complained that WANO had not been allowed to contribute an expert to the IAEA's fact-finding mission to Japan "despite several requests." He said the body would "better define" its role in emergency situations: by reinforcing the utility workers facing the event itself; creating a stock of safety equipment from its other members; and being a central representative for all nuclear operators to liaise with the IAEA and other organisations.


For his part, WNA director general John Ritch warned against the international community making symbolic gestures "in a climate rife with the impulse to 'do something'." Changes to the global nuclear safety regime should be strictly limited to cost-effective "substantive measures promising real safety gain."


Ritch said that a "review and restart" on public perception would be key to a successful future in which nuclear energy is able to contribute to meeting future demands. "The lesson of Fukushima," said Ritch, "is that our response must combine ever safer practice with ever better public education." It was in this, as well as a range of industrial coordination roles distinct from WANO's confidential safety role, that he said WNA could contribute in cooperation with international partners.


Proposals in September


The declaration directed Amano to prepare a report on the results of this week's meeting, a 'draft action plan' and possible changes to legal frameworks and present it to the IAEA General Conference this September.
Researched and written
by World Nuclear News