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Nuclear Safety is a Continuum, not a Final Destination


The Fukushima accident emphasised the urgent need for the nuclear industry to address the events and natural hazards that are possible, but seem very unlikely. Above, a member of the May 2011 IAEA fact-finding mission visiting the seawater intake area of the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant to assess tsunami damage. (Photo: G. Webb/IAEA)

“There’s this continuum with regard to safety improvement,” said Ken Ellis, CEO of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) and Chair of the International Conference on Operational Safety, held at IAEA headquarters in Vienna last week. Nuclear safety is a work in progress and not a status that is reached once and forever. “And the nuclear industry has learned that the best way to improve safety is to assist each other in that endeavour, share operating experience, share good practices, and create a learning industry.”

This Conference, which ran from 23 to 26 June, was held to share information and discuss the progress made in  nuclear industry safety since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident four years ago. Over 200 nuclear professionals from 42 countries and seven international organisations attended the event. Participants included licensees, government officials, and representatives from nuclear utilities, regulatory bodies, the nuclear industry and academia, as well as senior policymakers.

Denis Flory, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security, said, “This gathering of leadership, oversight and support in the nuclear power field sends a very strong message that, collectively, we recognise the importance of operational safety in these post-Fukushima Daiichi accident times.”

Unexpected (but Possible) Hazards

Addressing the implications of the 2011 Fukushima accident, Ellis said it has taught the nuclear industry that there is a need to address the events and natural hazards that seem highly unlikely, but which are within the realm of possibility.

“So yes, the industry has made further improvements in safety. For the past four years all of the plants in the world have made changes ensuring that they are now protected against these very unlikely natural hazards. They have been building new infrastructure, putting in extra defences, and making our responses to significant events more robust.”

Flory added that nuclear operators and regulators should be more open to requesting and accepting advice from external parties in the international community as they deliberate and prepare for unlikely hazards.

Sharing and Peer Reviews Key to Safety

Operational safety improves through the efforts and initiative of the nuclear industry as well as with support from international organisations like the IAEA and WANO. The IAEA creates internationally-recognised consensus-based safety standards, and provides Member States with expert advice, guidance and peer review services, upon request. WANO, with 438 operational nuclear power plants under its umbrella, also provides peer reviews to its members.

Flory noted that cooperation as well as peer reviews are key to the safe operation of nuclear facilities. “In peer reviews you have people who are working on the same sort of facilities, coming from the same sort of regulators, and who bring their experience, who share their experience. During these exercises you always notice good practices. And these good practices, with time, become the norm.

“This is what we mean when we talk about continuous improvement.”

Conference Conclusions

Findings, lessons learned and conclusions reached during this conference focused on these major items:

  • The essential need for self-assessments, peer reviews and regulatory inspections to address lessons learned since the Fukushima accident and strengthen operational safety;
  • Improvements to external peer review coordination and the further promulgation of good international guidance among Member States;
  • Many severe management and emergency response improvements have been made, however, further human and organizational improvements on all fronts are still needed when confronted with severe conditions;
  • Sharing operational experience needs to be further encouraged, facilitated and integrated to continuously improve operational safety;
  • No organization works in isolation: the safety culture of the operator is influenced by the safety culture of the regulator and vice versa. Everything the regulator says or does not say  has an effect on the operator. The national institutions and other cultural factors affect the regulatory framework. Corporate leadership is integral to achieving and improving safety culture, the challenge here is that regulators are not always allowed to conduct oversight at the corporate management level.
  • The issues, challenges and safety impacts of ageing management and long-term operation of power reactors.

These conclusions and recommendations will inform and guide the IAEA’s future work on nuclear safety.

“If there is one key message that we can perhaps all take away from this conference it is this: as nations, organisations and individuals we may all be independent, but at the same time we are all interdependent, and between us we already have the skills, the tools and the abilities to make operational safety a reality everywhere, every day,” said Flory. 

Broadening knowledge on operational safety

The next international conference on safety is planned for February 2016 and will focus on the human and organizational aspects of nuclear safety, as well as explore 30 years of safety culture.  

Between us we already have the skills, the tools and the abilities to make operational safety a reality everywhere, every day.
Denis Flory, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security
Last update: 26 Jul 2017

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