IAEA Technical Co-operation - A Partner in Development


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Ensuring Nuclear Safety


It is a fact of life for many Central and Eastern Europeans that Soviet era nuclear power plants, constructed to earlier safety standards, remain in operation. Countries that are in transition from centrally planned economies continue to depend on the electric power produced by such reactors, and likely will continue to for decades to come. This is the context that helps define the IAEA's role in addressing safety concerns in operating nuclear power plants.

A large part of the Agency's mandate in nuclear safety is carried out through TC activities. For the 17 developing countries currently pursuing nuclear power programmes or those exploring this option, it advises governments on the best, most efficient and safest choices available. Over the past 15 years the IAEA has provided more than US$ 100 million for technical co-operation to help improve nuclear safety in Member States. Much of this assistance concentrates on assisting States in strengthening their capabilities for regulation and control of nuclear installations. The nuclear regulatory body in Slovakia is an example of such successful "capacity building" in regulatory safety, and shows how success can breed further achievements in similar activities underway in Ukraine and Armenia.

Across Europe, the operational safety and effective conservation of Soviet era WWER (pressurized water-cooled and water-moderated power reactor) power plants is a major focus of TC activities. Many projects concentrate on operational safety and training, such as at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in Hungary where the Agency assisted in constructing an on-site training simulator - the first of its kind - using the surplus parts from cancelled WWER 440 reactors in Germany and Poland. Operational and engineering improvements, such as the seismic evaluation and upgrading of the Kozloduy NPP in Bulgaria, have also contributed to enhancing the safety of WWER type reactors by demonstrating that international safety standards can be applied to these reactors. Donors support these activities because technical co-operation in nuclear safety is a high priority with tangible benefits not only for Central and Eastern Europeans, but for the entire global community.

IAEA assists Member States in making decisions and taking actions that are consistent with the highest standards for safety and efficiency. The guiding principle for technical co-operation in nuclear energy and safety is to ensure that governments have the legal framework experience, human resources and tools to protect, control and exploit nuclear energy in a sustainable manner. The IAEA is unique in this role, and its global responsibility is critical to international safety and security.

Old Parts; New Purpose: Nuclear Safety in Hungary

Paks, Hungary.
One man's trash is another man's treasure. The dictum is being borne out beside the river Danube, some 150 kilometres south of the Hungarian capital, Budapest. A mock nuclear reactor, made-up of never used parts of abandoned installations, is now complete here, where four real reactor units now produce half of the country's total electricity. The dummy has all the key components in place - pressure vessel, steam generator, circulation pumps, piping and other such internals - identical with those of the working units. But it will never produce power.

The parts were manufactured for reactors of the same type (Soviet designed WWER 440/213) to be built in former East Germany and Poland. Both undertakings were cancelled, leaving the components worth no more than scrap value. The IAEA acquired them at bargain prices as part of a TC Model Project to strengthen operational safety at Paks. The imitation unit has been set up as a Maintenance Training Centre (MTC) for plant operators, the first of its kind anywhere for water cooled and water moderated energy reactors (WWER).

Paks has an operational safety record on par with the best in the world, but the plant management is conscious that it needs to have systematic safety procedures of the highest standard. Thus, the Model Project has quickly moved to establish the MTC and is now upgrading overall safety culture practices in the plant and all organizations dealing with nuclear power in Hungary. Soon, it will be introducing a systematic approach to training (SAT), especially maintenance personnel, which will form the foundation for MTC operations.

The MTC is especially important because the WWERs were not designed for regular safety inspections and maintenance, as is normally required. In fact, parts of the core area cannot be reached by humans and, in related Agency projects, remote control devices were developed to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. With its full-size core area, the MTC can provide the hands-on feel and experience to enable maintenance workers to work quickly and accurately.

Hungary, moreover, views it as a training centre, able to assist other countries with similar operating WWERs. Also important, many of the maintenance personnel at Paks will be retiring soon. Recruits can now get MTC training and on-the-job experience to take their places in due time.

"Safety culture" is a recent and, in some cases, abstract concept. The essence of it is that everybody involved in nuclear activities - from gatekeepers to top managers at a plant- should contribute to a way of thinking that places safety as its paramount goal. It calls for a questioning ethos, and for reporting anything unexpected so that it can be assessed for its safety significance. Most importantly, it also aims to preempt events that could threaten safety.

Nuclear industry people now speak of a "global" safety culture, though it is not something that can be set up by edict. The Model Project aims to implant it ecumenically via workshops and seminars, bringing together Hungarian and international specialists to discuss short-comings, identified by Agency missions, and other issues pertinent to safety culture.

The SAT component is new for Soviet-built reactor operating staff. Different types of safety missions led by the IAEA have identified training as the most important element to be improved. Therefore, the project is helping to upgrade all the written material, audio visual and computerized aids, as well as equipment - not only for Paks but for other institutes that provide training. Experts will be sent in to review and advise on the modifications performed by the Hungarians, and the Agency will test and evaluate the effectiveness of training.

Hungary invested some US $ 8 million in the Model Project due to be completed in 1997: several times the IAEA technical co-operation input. The payoff is measured in safety assurance as well as a reliable power supply. There have been no safety threatening events in the four Paks units (started up between 1982 and 1987), but there have been holdups; notably problems which extended refuelling outage periods. With Paks providing 50 percent of electricity to the national grid, avoiding such delays is important to the economy and public welfare.

During the opening ceremony of the MTC in April 1997, Hungary's Minister for Industry, Trade and Tourism, Mr. Szabolcs Fazakas, said that the new facility put the Paks nuclear power station in a unique position worldwide to address the needs of maintenance personnel with utmost efficiency and effectiveness. He also thanked the IAEA for providing the Paks with the unused WWER-440 type reactor components and pointed out that their real market value exceeded US$40 million.

Slovakia Strengthens Safety Regulations

Bratislava, Slovak Republic.
The remarkable rise in stature of the Slovak Nuclear Regulatory Authority (SNRA) is one of the most reassuring developments in Eastern Europe's nuclear power scene. Established only in 1993 after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, SNRA personnel now serve as experts in several IAEA programmes to advance regulatory capacity in neighbouring countries.

Many countries in Eastern Europe were not recognized for having independent nuclear regulatory bodies - amply staffed and financed, backed by laws and regulations giving them authority to shut down power plants on safety grounds. Separation from the Federation left Slovakia in a dire situation: only six site inspectors remained in the new Republic, while it inherited responsibility for four operating power reactors (with four more under construction), a severely damaged research reactor to be dismantled, as well as for fuel cycle, spent fuel and radioactive waste treatment facilities.

Slovakia did have some nuclear engineers and scientists and technical staff from nuclear power plants. Together with personnel from research institutes and various ministries, SNRA built staff strength to 50 by the end of 1993. But they lacked nuclear regulatory experience, and SNRA had to create, virtually from scratch, a new organization aimed at matching international best practices. A TC Model Project was launched in early 1994 to assist the young Republic through experts, services, training fellowships abroad and some equipment to rapidly meet this goal.

A team of senior regulators, organized by the European Union with IAEA participation, identified areas for improvement. The IAEA then recruited international experts to visit Slovakia to analyze, discuss and advise SNRA on emergency preparedness, radioactive waste control, quality assurance, site inspection, periodic safety assessment and training.

Nearly 30 Slovak regulators have been awarded fellowships (typically for two weeks, some for several months) with mature regulatory bodies in Europe and North America to witness how regulations are enforced in those countries, to take experience back and, where appropriate, to absorb them into SNRA procedures. "The Slovak regulators' rapid advance is largely due to their own determination and drive," explains Project Manager Massoud Samiei. "SNRA is now a strong body with good practices, able to recruit and retain excellent staff."

SNRA Chairman Jozef Misak acknowledges the Authority's new found stature in the country. What was once a solitary office in a ministry is now an independent legally constituted authority directly under the Prime Minister with more than 70 staff and an assured and adequate budget. Parliament has recognized it as equivalent to an international organization, and it has control powers over all nuclear activities and installations in the country.

Arguably the crowning recognition has been the request for SNRA to assist the regulatory bodies of Armenia and Ukraine via IAEA projects. The Agency is convinced that both countries would gain a lot from the Slovak experience, particularly in handling the considerable amount of foreign assistance that is available. Advice they are likely to hear from SNRA is, "Don't take too much assistance at once; don't have experts coming in every fortnight, because you get overburdened with help." SNRA officials became aware of these kinds of problems early in their programme. To avoid being flooded, they backed off, rescheduled and made the pace manageable.

SNRA consultants already have joined IAEA teams to Armenia and Ukraine. A team of SNRA experts has already produced a workplan for Ukraine under an IAEA technical co-operation contract. There have also been two-way visits between Armenia and Slovakia. In short, SNRA activities are not only strengthening safety through better regulations, they are also helping to realize a key objective of IAEA-TC - the promotion of technical co-operation among developing countries (TCDC).