Safety first, safety second12 December 2005
The World Association of Nuclear Operators recently gathered in Budapest, Hungary, for its biannual general meeting. Top executives told each other that safety must come first, second and third in their priorities. By Jeremy Gordon
A nuclear renaissance is underway, but it remains very, very fragile, William Cavanaugh told the assembled executives of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), the body which he chairs. The worst thing that could possibly happen to the industry at this point in time would be a relaxation of safety standards leading to an accident. A serious nuclear accident of any kind, at any kind of plant, anywhere in the world could have the effect of retarding the renaissance by another 15 or 20 years.
WANO was formed in the period immediately after the Chernobyl accident with the mission of taking nuclear safety forward by such a degree that an accident on that scale would never occur again. In Budapest, on 10-11 October, the organisation held its eighth biannual general meeting.
Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA director general and recent winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, took the stage, and much applause, to emphasise the importance of this time for the industry and that the business of nuclear safety was crucial to its future. ElBaradei outlined the most important safety challenges for the nuclear power industry, explaining, without naming names, that “it is vital that we improve our performance in fixing the ‘weak links’ in the nuclear safety chain.” Facilities still exist at which nuclear safety assistance should be made a priority. The symptoms at such facilities are readily evident: less than optimal design safety features; the lack of strong, independent regulatory oversight; and poorly coordinated, narrowly focused international safety assistance. “For such facilities, the international nuclear safety community should move expeditiously,” he said, emphasising the importance of WANO as well as his own agency in coordinating these efforts.
IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei
Operators must never relax in their quest for safe operation. “Although efforts to improve safety have the extra effect of improving availability and a number of other performance indicators,” he said, “the problem of nuclear safety can never be considered ‘fixed’.” Quoting Richard Meserve, chair of the International Nuclear Safety Group, ElBaradei continued: “Nothing is more corrosive to continued safety performance than a belief that the safety challenge has been ‘solved’ and that attention can be focused on other matters.”
Even a world-leading plant can slip into mediocrity very suddenly. Notable recent falls from atomic grace include the huge undetected leak at Sellafield’s Thorp plant, and of course the tragic deaths of the Mihama accident. In what has been noted to be a theme of WANO meetings, CEOs and presidents virtually throw themselves to the floor in apology to their peers. This time, Yosaku Fuji, president of Mihama owners Kansai Electric Power Company (Kepco) spoke to deliver his sincerest apologies to those bereaved by the accident at his company’s plant, and also to the assembled managers.
The accident occurred on 9 August 2004 when a steam condensate pipe in Mihama’s third PWR unit ruptured, blasting eleven workers with boiling water and steam at 150ºC. Four died at the scene, one died later in hospital and the accident was categorised at INES Level 1. The pipe ruptured because it had been in service for the unit’s entire 27-year life and had worn down, due to flow-accelerated corrosion, from a thickness of 10mm to just 1.4mm. The reason the pipe had been allowed to wear down was that it had been omitted from inspection lists by a subcontractor. In a cruel twist, the omission had been noticed and the pipe was scheduled for inspection a matter of days after the accident.
Fuji said that since that day, “it is my mission, my company’s mission” to put safety first. Fuji said that Kepco had performed a thorough evaluation of its procedures and identified five ‘basic action policies’ and 29 ‘actions item’ to raise its levels of safety to the highest possible standard as part of a “ceaseless effort for nuclear plant safety and personnel safety.” One of the most important of which was top management making more site visits.
In the INES Level 3 Thorp incident, for which there was notably no representation at the meeting, a feeder tube and tank assembly holding dissolved spent nuclear fuel in nitric acid was subject to very slight vibration due to a design error. Over the plant’s 10-year life metal fatigue set in and the fluid began to escape into a containment area below. This went on undetected for several months until 83m3 of the fluid sat on the floor. A British Nuclear Group (BNG) report put the failure to detect the problem down to ‘new plant culture’: staff at Thorp considered it to be a top-class facility at which a serious problem was highly unlikely, therefore there was no real need to perform the routine checks that would have revealed the problem. And this was despite similar problems in the past.
WANO believes that very strong operational safety standards lead almost directly to very strong economic performances, and points to key indicators as evidence. It cannot be just coincidence that capability factors have risen as the rate of industrial accidents at nuclear facilities has fallen. Capability factor is the percentage of maximum energy generation that a plant is capable of supplying to the electrical grid.
A case in point is Canada’s Darlington plant. The four-935MWe-unit Candu plant was commissioned in the early 1990s and held up as an example of operational excellence for the whole world to follow. But gradually standards were slipping. Brian Duncan, director of operations and maintenance at the plant, explained how WANO helped Darlington to get back on track.
Brian Duncan of Darlington tells the WANO BGM 2005 how the organisation helped improve safety and generation at the plant
By 2000, Darlington had a backlog of maintenance tasks and had noted a rise in human error rates along with a drop in load factors. In coordination with WANO, peer reviews at Darlington were increased from every three to every two years. In addition, staff were sent to attend peer reviews at world-class plants around the world. They brought back “good solutions” which helped the plant to make “good improvement” by about 2002-4: ‘human performance events’ decreased steadily from 111 in 2000 to just six in 2004 and there was a 7% increase in power generation in 2004 compared to 2003.
Key to the achievement was convincing staff that low-consequence precursor events really were important. Communications between different departments were stepped up, as was self-checking, and these changes were promoted by a high-profile working committee. Duncan said that because workers were part of the solution, they “implemented the changes very well and took them to heart.”
But it was acknowledged that even a strong operational and safety record – which nuclear certainly has – would not be enough to convince the public that the technology can be trusted: the industry would have to improve its public relations skills. Michael Prescott of the Weber Shandwick public relations firm tried to explain to the executives why the media is driven by bad news, and that in the public’s mind the word ‘nuclear’ is stalked by the image of the mushroom cloud. He went on to give a five-point list of communications lessons the industry should learn:
- Prepare to battle for people’s opinions. Remember that if you’re in the energy industry, you are in politics.
- In that battle, facts and arguments are your armour. Know and respect your opponents’ views and arguments.
- Ruthlessly select your spokesmen. “Lock the losers in the back room,” Prescott said.
- Capitalise on third-party endorsement – a good example of this would be Gaia theorist James Lovelock.
- And of course, be very careful not to run ahead of your audience on technical matters.
In response, Chubu took the bold step of releasing virtually all their operating information online. In a prominent place on its website, Chubu began to detail the operational status of its reactors, down to a trivial level. Kawaguchi said: “It takes a lot of courage to disclose so much, but it has paid off.” When another water leak occurred at the plant, the sensational element of the media reports was absent. The stories amounted to just a few column-inches and were reported factually as a business and industrial problem rather than a public safety issue.
Chubu’s tactics were in marked contrast to BNG’s. The Thorp leak was disclosed only to one trusted local newspaper and took some time to filter up to the national press where it was reported sensationally, inaccurately and unfavourably.
It springs to mind that all nuclear operators could do far worse than to detail the live current status of their plants on their websites. If a journalist with no technical knowledge were to visit the site for research on the company or its operations for any kind of story, they would be just as likely to mention the amount of power generated as the age of the reactors.
WHAT NEXT FOR WANO?
Chair William Cavanaugh wants WANO to update its charter and have members to re-sign it at the next BGM on 23-25 September 2007 in Chicago, USA; he wants all plants to undergo a peer review at least every six years; he wants the reviews to go deeper, and to be conducted by the industry’s very best, and secondees from plants to WANO offices to stay for three years instead of just one to ensure the very best use of knowledge. New corporate reviews could begin to be carried out to complement peer reviews.
Cavanaugh also wants more plants to participate more fully in WANO: at least one event report should be filed by each plant each year. He said that a good rule of thumb would be: “If this event had occurred somewhere else in the world, would you have liked to have heard about it in advance of it occurring at your plant? If the answer is ‘yes’, then the event should be reported.”
WANO wants to eliminate recurring errors from nuclear operations. Such errors indicate a systematic fault and the not fully-formed mentalities of groups of employees. WANO wants to learn from psychologists and from bodies in other industries in order to take operations to a new level, so that a really new industry may emerge with Generation IV technology.
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