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Improving Safety of Ageing Nuclear Power Plants in Lockdown


Extending the operating lifetime of the Doel Nuclear Power Station in Belgium requires a thorough safety review. The IAEA has supported the plant’s operator through advice provided following a review mission. Doel’s four reactors, two of which entered operation in 1975, represent 30 per cent of the country’s total electricity generation. (Photo: N. Hippert)

Had you spoken to Robert Krivanek a year ago about where he’d be this spring, he may have asked you to reach him in Asco, Spain. A senior IAEA nuclear safety officer, he planned to conduct a safety review of the Spanish village’s two-gigawatt nuclear power plant, and help its operators meet the requirements to extend the operating lifetime of the plant’s two reactors. But Spain isn’t where you’ll find him today.

Imposed travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have made safety reviews that required in person interactions and on-site observation and visits extremely difficult, if not impossible — but they’ve not stopped him and his team from being productive.

From its headquarters in Austria, the IAEA’s Long Term Operation (LTO) team has refocused its efforts from missions to enhancing and expanding a new set of guidelines for nuclear facility operators — adding guidance for long-term operating power reactors, early-phase nuclear power plant operation, and research reactors, amongst other topics. This provides useful guidance for nuclear power plant operators until missions can resume and will be an additional support tool provided by the IAEA. 

Safety Aspects of Long Term Operation (SALTO) is an IAEA peer review service that offers countries with nuclear power plants a comprehensive review that directly addresses strategy and key elements for the safe long-term operation of nuclear power plants. To-date the service has conducted 45 missions for nuclear power plants and one mission for a research reactor in 17 countries around the world since its creation in 2005.

As the fleet of nuclear power plants age and their operation lifetimes are extended, there are important safety consideration to manage. These include managing physical ageing and technological obsolescence of safety equipment, implementing necessary safety upgrades, and ensuring the availability of qualified personnel.

Today, more than two thirds of all the power reactors operating worldwide have been in operation for more than 30 years. Keeping the global fleet of nuclear power plants operating is important, as roughly 10 per cent of total electricity production and a third of low-carbon electricity generation is nuclear.

“COVID-19 has not put a pause on the demand for low-carbon, reliable nuclear energy. The continued safe and reliable operation of nuclear power plants is essential, so we’re employing methods beyond on-site reviews to help keep plants running safely,” said Krivanek. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has found that the long-term operation of nuclear power plants constitutes the least costly option for low-carbon generation.

Extending a power plant’s life

Keeping a plant producing electricity safely and reliably for decades starts with careful design, high quality materials and sound construction. In addition to that, safety depends on sound management, policies, procedures, processes and practices; the capability and reliability of operating personnel; adequate resources; and frequent upgrading and modifications to plant structures, systems and components.  All these contribute to the prolonging of a plant’s life.

SALTO’s safety review service supports these processes by comparing a facility’s long-term operation related activities and programmes against IAEA Safety Standards and proven good international practices and then providing recommendations to operators to improve preparedness for safe LTO and achieve consistency with IAEA Safety Standards.

“We appreciate the IAEA support to our plant in ageing management and preparation for safe LTO,” said Dan Bigu, a corporate director at the Cernavoda Nuclear Power Plant, who was site Director during a SALTO mission in February 2020. “The results of this mission will help us to improve our activities for safe LTO and to further align them with IAEA safety standards.”

Summaries of all SALTO missions are made available on the IAEA’s website along with analyses of all mission results in 2005-2015 and 2015-2018.

The third edition of the SALTO Peer Review Guidelines, published in June 2021, expands on previous iterations — offering new detailed guidance for reviewers, introducing facilities for self-assessment and the development of self-identified issues prior to the SALTO missions, and providing better information to facilities for preparations for the missions.

The next missions

With travel restrictions to ease gradually in the near future, safety review missions, such as SALTO, will resume with advanced preparation already taking place. A next milestone will be the 50th mission, which might happen later in 2021 or early 2022.

Before that, missions to several nuclear power plants are planned. At the request of Ukraine’s government, the SALTO team is preparing to conduct a review mission in August 2021, for instance. Ukraine’s 15 operational reactor units produced 53.9% of the country’s total electricity in 2019 and the country’s energy strategy through 2035 notes commitment to keep the share of nuclear energy at half of total electricity production. The country’s state-owned nuclear energy enterprise, Energoatom, estimates its nuclear fleet has avoided 2.7 billion tonnes of CO2­ emissions over the course of its operational lifetime — a greenhouse gas equivalent of over 587 million passenger vehicles being driven for one year.

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