Global Nuclear Industry Takes Steps to Improve Safety at Facilities Worldwide
As a leader in creating and promoting standards for nuclear safety, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) spearheaded the global response to the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear energy facility. Gathering critical insights into the incident and the response that followed, IAEA leaders visited Japan several times over the past year, including a fact-finding mission to Fukushima Daiichi and two other facilities that were affected by the natural disaster.
NEI spoke with the leader of the mission, Mike Weightman, who is also the United Kingdom‘s Chief Inspector of Nuclear Installations, to hear his first-hand account of what he learned on-site at Fukushima and the efforts to improve nuclear safety worldwide.
“We went to Japan to learn how to improve safety at nuclear energy facilities,” said Weightman. “As a community, we take every opportunity to learn lessons from incidents, accidents and extreme events, and Fukushima is no exception.”
Eighteen experts from 12 countries with experience across a wide range of nuclear specialties participated in the mission. The team was created by an agreement between the IAEA, which reports to the United Nations, and the Japanese government.
During the mission, the team met with Japan’s nuclear-related agencies and visited three nuclear energy facilities: Fukushima Daiichi, Fukushima Daini and Tokai. Both Daini and Tokai successfully withstood the earthquake and tsunami. Visiting the facilities allowed the experts to talk to operators, evaluate their response to the natural disaster and observe the ongoing restoration work.
“I encountered tales of bravery, leadership and resilience at each of the facilities we visited,” Weightman said. “Workers at Fukushima Daini laid 5.6 miles of heavy power cables by hand in order to restore power. Meanwhile, personnel at the stricken Daiichi plant had to resort to novel means, using what they had on hand to stabilize the reactors.”
Following the trip to Japan, the team shared several key findings from the accident at Fukushima Daiichi and concluded that the underlying problem was that several Japanese nuclear facilities underestimated the tsunami risk.
“The Japanese did not periodically update their plants’ natural disaster hazard assessments in light of new information, which is a standard procedure in many countries, including the U.S. and the U.K.,” said Weightman.
The team’s report also stresses the importance of creating a “defense-in-depth” safety approach to protect and reinforce nuclear energy facilities. This strategy uses multiple and redundant layers of safety to guard against potential system failures and extreme events, including powerful earthquakes and flooding. It is a regular practice in many countries, including the United States and U.K., but now even more layers of safety are being added at nuclear power plants around the world as a direct result of Fukushima.
While the team’s findings focus on areas for improvement, it also identifies successes. Weightman praised Fukushima Daiichi’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), for managing a “dedicated and determined” response in the face of arduous conditions.
“I was humbled by the enormous damage inflicted by the tsunami, yet I was profoundly impressed by the dedication and organization of the staff onsite at each of the facilities,” Weightman said. “They did what they could to resolve the situation given the exceptional circumstances. Their commitment and enthusiasm for their jobs is remarkable.”
The events at Fukushima also demonstrate the value of onsite emergency response centers.
Weightman commended TEPCO for coordinating its response efforts from a secure facility designed to withstand the effects of a serious nuclear incident. The report urges operators around the world to follow TEPCO’s example and equip facilities with satellite communications equipment to ensure constant contact with operators in the control room.
The team’s recommendations, as well as new lessons learned from follow-up missions to the site, serve as the basis for the IAEA’s Action Plan on Nuclear Safety, which will strengthen nuclear safety worldwide by improving emergency response training and enhancing the agency’s peer review programs that allows countries to monitor the safety of each other’s nuclear energy facilities. The plan also calls for detailed inspections of the world’s 440 nuclear reactors to ensure that each facility is equipped to withstand extreme events, similar to the safety reviews that were conducted at every U.S. nuclear energy facility immediately after the Fukushima accident.
In his role as the U.K.’s top nuclear safety regulator, Weightman is doing his part to ensure that lessons from Fukushima are being incorporated at each of the country’s 17 reactors. Over the last year, U.K. nuclear energy operators have taken steps to strengthen flood defenses and cope with the loss of electrical power, among other safety enhancements. Weightman also produced a report on the implications of Fukushima for the U.K. nuclear industry last fall, which outlines 17 conclusions and 38 recommendations for enhancing nuclear safety.
“No matter how high our standards, the quest for improvement must never stop,” said Weightman. “We will ensure lessons are learned from Fukushima. In many cases, action has already been taken, but work will continue.”