The human side of nuclear safety and the future of nuclear energy

14 July 2015

The 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan has, as might be expected, led to improvements in equipment at plants around the world that have fortified safety systems and allowed for better protection against rare, extreme natural events. Equally important to the process of improving nuclear safety is the emphasis placed on implementing quality improvements to the 'human' side of nuclear safety, a crucial element that is often not considered by those outside the nuclear sector, writes William Magwood.

Ensuring nuclear reactor safety is not only a question of physical protection against all credible threats, enhancing robustness of important safety systems and increasing redundancy of back-up power and water cooling systems, but also one of making certain that qualified and trained staff are supported by effective procedures. However, these assets are valued only in an organisational culture that places a premium on ensuring high levels of safety, or implementing what is called an effective 'nuclear safety culture'. In recognition of the importance of such factors, the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) has created a new division to support its member countries in their efforts to further improve the human side of nuclear safety. The new Division of the Human Aspects of Nuclear Safety complements the existing NEA Division of Nuclear Safety Technology and Regulation by consolidating activities in the areas of training, safety culture and public communications, and by encouraging greater focus on such areas within member countries.

Safety culture has been identified as having played an important role in allowing precursor conditions at Fukushima to go unaddressed.

The NEA is already supporting member countries in a variety of areas that address lessons learnt from the Fukushima accident on the human side of nuclear safety. For example, analyses have been conducted on approaches to enhancing organisational resilience so that staff are better able to respond under the harsh conditions of an accident. A key component in these approaches is ensuring that the flexibility required for resilience during an accident does not undermine the rigidity required for normal operation (e.g. prescribed procedures). The safety culture has in fact been identified as having played an important role in allowing precursor conditions at Fukushima to go unaddressed. Accordingly, the NEA Committee on Nuclear Regulatory Activities (CNRA) has identified the safety culture as an essential characteristic for regulators, as well as operators, and is developing a guidance document on the safety culture of the regulatory body.

Innovation for the future of nuclear

Safety will remain a vital aspect of nuclear energy as we look forward. Nuclear reactors have an important role to play as nations around the world consider the necessary steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with climate change - about 60% of which are generated by the power sector. Nuclear power is also poised to play a prominent role in the plans of both developed and emerging economies looking to provide the reliable, long-term sources of energy needed to drive economic growth. Nuclear power plants are clearly a reliable and low-carbon source of energy, but they must be built and operated economically and to high safety standards.

Together with the International Energy Agency (IEA), the NEA recently released the Technology Roadmap: Nuclear Energy, a publication that provides an overview of nuclear energy today and areas of potential growth through regional analysis. To support ambitious growth in nuclear energy, key technological milestones and innovations are identified along with barriers to nuclear development. The roadmap provides recommendations to policymakers on how to achieve these milestones and address barriers. An essential feature of this publication is the use of case studies developed with experts to support recommendations.

Further to this, and to address the technological challenges and issues identified in the IEA/NEA Roadmap, the NEA is developing an international nuclear research and innovation roadmap that will establish a research agenda covering areas such as advanced nuclear power technologies, enhancements to the safe and efficient operation of existing plants, innovative and cost-effect methods of decommissioning and dismantling retired plants, and technologies to support the long-term storage and disposal of radioactive waste. This new roadmap, Nuclear Innovation 2050, is projected for release in late 2016 and will align with global efforts to address climate change and support international and national initiatives to safely and economically build and operate nuclear plants over the next 35 years and beyond. In turn, this ultimately allows nuclear technology to fulfil its potential to provide large quantities of reliable, emissions-free energy for decades to come.

William Magwood

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William Magwood is Director General of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency. He served as a Commissioner with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission for more than four years and before that was Director of Nuclear Energy at the US Department of Energy.