RASIMS, a vital nuclear component

27 November 2019

With the launch of the IAEA’s Radiation Safety Information Management System Version 2.0, Andrew Tunnicliffe takes a looks at what the system is and why it’s an important component to the safe and secure management of radioactive materials across the nuclear industry.

“RADIATION IS CONSIDERED... INVISIBLE, IT cannot be seen, but you can feel it,” Igor Pismensky tells Sky News in the UK. “That is, you can feel a certain metallic taste in your mouth and a sore throat. Radiation never passes without a trace... So for everyone who’s gone through Chernobyl, there are consequences.” He was speaking of the accident at the nuclear plant in 1986, and the actions the Soviet Union took in the hours and days afterwards to contain the radiation and conceal the truth from the world.

Pismensky was a helicopter pilot, one of a team tasked with trying to prevent further radiation from escaping from what was by then the almost completely demolished shell of reactor 4. The events of that evening continue to play over in the minds of those involved, fortunate enough to have survived the initial incident and subsequent ill health associated with exposure to radioactive materials. Winning critical acclaim, Sky dramatized the disaster more than 33 years on, depicting the events on the small screen.

The series showed an accident of no-one’s making, other than the then communist state. Arguably fear led to far reaching consequences – fear of those there that night to not have the finger of blame pointed at them, and fear of the communist elite to not be shown to be weak, incapable or in need of international help.

Thankfully those events have resulted in significant change for the nuclear power industry. Much has been learned from what went wrong and how it was addressed in the immediate aftermath. It seems inconceivable that the world will ever face such a catastrophe again, but complacency can be our greatest enemy and as such, should never be allowed to take root.

In 1957 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was formed; its mission was to promote safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies. Since then there have been numerous major incidents reported, including the first to be recorded, Windscale Pile – rated 5 on the International Nuclear Events Scale (INES) – in the UK in 1957.

The IAEA publishes and updates safety standards it says “provide the fundamental principles, requirements and recommendations to ensure nuclear safety”, with the aim of protecting health and minimising danger to life and property. Those standards cover everything from medical technology to the use of radioactive materials for power generation throughout the process, start to finish.

During the Agency’s 63rd General Conference, held in Vienna in September, delegates discussed radiation safety and what it said were “ways of strengthening the Agency’s technical cooperation activities”. They were invited to a demonstration of the IAEA’s Radiation Safety Information Management System (RASIMS) Version 2.0, an online tool which will enable Member States to view and compare their national radiation safety infrastructure to relevant IAEA safety standards.

First introduced more than a decade ago, in 2008, the Agency’s Division of Radiation, Transport and Waste Safety told NEI: “The new version is based on a modern IT platform that offers a more user-friendly interface for inputting data. RASIMS is an online tool to assist Member States review how their radiation safety infrastructure aligns with IAEA Safety Standards.” They added RASIMS is complementary to the Emergency Preparedness and Response Information Management System (EPRIMS).

Open to all Members, EPRIMS includes a database of nuclear power reactor technical information. However, it’s main function is to be a web-based tool which allows users to review their own emergency preparedness and response arrangements in case of nuclear and radiological emergencies. Should a situation arise, the likes of those seen during the more than 60 year history of the IAEA, Members are able to review their responses with the aim of learning from those events and facilitating further development of international good practice.

RASIMS is particularly aimed at Members which are in need, and receive, technical support from the Agency, allowing them to gather, evaluate and view information that “reflects the status of their national infrastructure for radiation, transport and waste safety”. The Division of Radiation, Transport and Waste Safety says: “RASIMS is purely an online tool. The information in it can be used as a basis for designing technical support projects when Member States request assistance to strengthen their radiation safety infrastructure.”

The information is first entered by the Member State, then authorised by their appointed RASIMS coordinator. Once this is completed, experts at the Agency review it. The agency says: “This information can, in turn, be used to ensure that technical assistance projects are focussed on clearly identified needs.”

This comprehensive platform covers all aspects of radiation, transport and waste safety to ensure they are managed adequately. “The information in RASIMS is grouped into Thematic Safety Areas (TSAs) that are derived from the IAEA’s Safety Standards,” it says. These are:

  • Regulatory Infrastructure (TSA 1)
  • Radiological Protection in Occupational Exposure (TSA 2)
  • Radiological Protection in Medical Exposure (TSA 3)
  • Public and Environmental Radiological Protection (TSA 4)
  • Education and Training in Radiation, Transport and Waste Safety (TSA 6)
  • Transport Safety (TSA 7)

However, there is a need for expert knowledge when inputting the data, says the Agency. “People who enter data into RASIMS should be technically competent in their field. IAEA invites key RASIMS users to attend training workshops so they can learn how to use the system.” There is also an e-learning module available via the Agency’s website for users to better understand the system.

Interactive “hands-on” regional workshops are also organised at which national RASIMS coordinators are assisted in developing their understanding of the system, how it works and their responsibilities in submitting “accurate information that reflects the national situation and contains all relevant details”. At the launch of RASIMS in 2008, the Agency said Member States should nominate national coordinators “to ensure that the information in RASIMS is accurate, comprehensive, up-to-date and reflects the ‘national’ perspective”.

Complying with all IAEA IT security measures, the platform is password protected meaning only the individual Members and IAEA technical support staff have access to data, which ensures safety and security of their national infrastructure. Safety and security of nuclear-related information is as critical to a good nuclear infrastructure programme as it is to protecting against accident or incident.

Speaking at the International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power, acting IAEA director general, Cornel Feruta, said robust nuclear safety requirements were an issue for all plants around the world. He said: “This is a national responsibility, as is the need to ensure that nuclear and other radioactive material is properly secured so that it does not fall into the hands of terrorists and other criminals.”

He called for effective international cooperation, adding: “We establish global nuclear safety standards and security  guidance. We provide detailed practical assistance in many areas, from energy planning... to plant site selection, legal and regulatory matters and technical training, all the way through to plant decommissioning.” He went on to applaud the advances being made in several countries concerning the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste, among others.

Feruta’s comments came just a week or so after a US media report warned the country’s federal body in charge of safety and security at nuclear power plants was “steadily rolling back” standards. U.S. News & World Report said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had halved the number of simulated attacks on US nuclear power facilities – known as ‘force-to-force’ – since 2018, citing public documents and testimony. It suggested “pressure from a cash-strapped nuclear energy industry increasingly eager to slash costs” had led to the move, adding the Commission had later eased the standards plants were required to meet.

In response to the criticism, the media outlet reported, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission director of the Division of Security Operations said: “It’s just one out of 10 security inspections that we do, and it’s the totality of those inspections that we do that have us verifying that licensees are operating their plants in a secure way.” The report was said to have left the Commission reeling, with open conflict among commissioners. The nuclear industry, however, supported the move saying it was the result of better state of security at the country’s plants.

Whatever the reality, Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists told U.S. News & World Report: “I know how easy it is to cause a Fukushima-scale meltdown, radiation release or worse. And the timelines are very short. You don’t have much room to manoeuvre if you misjudge what the threat is.”

Whether it’s a natural disaster, technical malfunction or deliberate act of sabotage, the risks posed throughout the nuclear power sector by the misuse of radioactive materials are known and sadly well documented. Having a strategy of mitigation is essential for any serious nuclear powered nation. “A good radiation safety infrastructure will facilitate the protection of people and the environment in line with IAEA Safety Standards,” says the Division of Radiation, Transport and Waste. RASIMS Version 2.0 is the latest step towards that.

Main Image: The Chernobyl New Safe Confinement was built to encase the reactor 4 and the hastily-erected sarcophagus

Author information: Andrew Tunnicliffe is a freelance writer and editor

IAEA’s 63rd General Conference in Vienna (Source: IAEA)

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