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Where does nuclear safety stand after Fukushima?

The Fukushima has brought nuclear safety front-stage again. This catastrophe has already enabled us to pin-point several specific weak points, e.g., system complexity and non-collaboration (independence) of the Japanese institutions concerned. But elsewhere in the world, questions are still being raised and the prospect of setting up an international authority in this field is remote.

October 2011
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lire en français
Executive resume

The Fukushima has brought nuclear safety front-stage again. This catastrophe has already enabled us to pin-point several specific weak points, e.g., system complexity and non-collaboration (independence) of the Japanese institutions concerned. But elsewhere in the world, questions are still being raised and the prospect of setting up an international authority in this field is remote.

ParisTech Review - After Fukushima, two sorts of analysis circulated among specialists. The optimists asserted that the catastrophe would reinforce environmental safety standards and secure operational systems in civilian nuclear power production sites, and be supportive of the most recent generation European Pressurized Reactor (EPR). But the pessimists suggest that the question of nuclear safety has been superseded and that the very existence of nuclear power is being called into question. As an expert of safety certification, what is your point of view?

André-Claude Lacoste - Let me first make one point clear: I do not wish to enter into any considerations about energy procurement policies: they lie outside my remit, but I do concede that the border-line between energy policy and safety issues is narrow.

I would add, if I may, that your question relates to two different issues, often contradictory, operational safety and security measures. Operational safety relates to the site production installation, reactor, ancillaries… whereas security designates countermeasures to threats of terrorist attacks… Depending on the language used, the notions are distinguished or not. In French and English we use separate terms, security and safety, whereas in Spanish it is one word, securidad. It is commonplace to misunderstand one for the other.

So, what is the safety level in France?

Since 1973, the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) has always complied with a demand for transparency: in short, it is literally impossible to guarantee that a nuclear accident will never happen in France. Since 2005, we have initiated a large debate about post-accident management, associating several hundred exponents, including elected personalities and representatives of defence associations of the environment. And we do this because we think that such an event might occur. Naturally, there is a low probability attached to the occurrence and it is our intention to reduce it even further.

With its short history, is nuclear power generation at a turning point?

When we refer to nuclear power, we tend to restrict ourselves to the region of the world where we live. Take, for example, the Americans who announced a few years ago the concept of “nuclear renaissance” to boost hopes for a domestic, viz., US, new start in nuclear generation after 30 years’ interruption. They ‘globalised’ the concept but with a curious amalgam. In China, India, Japan and South Korea there is absolutely no need for a renaissance since growth rate of nuclear generation in these countries has always been continuous; the term ‘renaissance’ is therefore inappropriate, even meaningless for these countries.

In like manner, those who assert that nuclear power generation will come to a halt everywhere in the world because of Fukushima are quite wrong. The European examples most frequently cited are atypical. The fact that Germany has decided to abandon nuclear power is partly due to Fukushima; but it’s mostly linked to the lack of support for nuclear energy within the population: 80% of the Germans claim not to support nuclear activity. In the case of Italy, I personally have never believed that this country would really decide to return to a nuclear option under the conditions proposed. In reverse, elsewhere in Europe we can note that the United Kingdom is accelerating its nuclear plans and Sweden is rehabilitating the nuclear option.

As Chairman of the French Nuclear Safety Authority, we suppose you must remain indifferent to the nuclear power market and its future.

Yes, absolutely. Whilst recognizing that the decisions ASN takes can have an effect on the market and that the activities of the latter do have consequences in terms of the volume of work we undertake. Let me frame the situation as follows: if France resorts to nuclear power for its electricity generation needs, then both plant and processes must be safe. If France exports its nuclear know-how or equipment, these must be provided with the same level of safety. We avoid presenting our Authority as a possible positive leverage, i.e., in favour of new nuclear installations outside France. The French Government created in 2008 the France Nuclear International Agency (AFNI), for the very purpose of improving France’s export capacity in this sector. We at ASN have no connections with AFNI and would not like to be seen as part of a gift-wrapper to France’s potential clients.

There are many equivalent structures to ASN today around the world. What do you see as the main differences with and among these foreign authorities?

There is indeed a wide spectrum of agencies, differing in their experience, their size, their levels of competence, skills and independence. At one end of the spectrum, you have the American and French Authorities – these two are totally independent bodies. They are State entities yet do not report to their Governments. Moreover, ASN was created to a certain extent in the image of the American Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC employs 4 000 people compared with 450 at ASN, the reason being, I feel, is that the American nuclear plant is far more heterogeneous than ours, although with not much more installed power capacity. In France, we have a limited number of reactor types and only one operator, the national electricity facility, EDF. In contradistinction, the USA have up to 80 types of reactor and 50 operating companies.

What about the rest of Europe?

European nuclear safety regulatory authorities are more or less independent of their respective Governments or of the ministerial department in charge of energy procurement policies. My counterpart in Germany is appointed by the minister in charge of the Environment changes when the minister changes. The situation for safety authorities is far better in Sweden or in Finland. The Russian safety authority is trying to improve its leverage with respect to the major Russian operator Rosatom, the Director General of which currently is a former Prime Minister. You can see then that there is a multitude of special cases, but with a general trend to instating authorities that are more and more independent.

If we look at Asia – a region expanding rapidly in terms of nuclear power procurement policies – can we be sure they are politically “equipped”, so to speak, to enforce and ensure reliable safety measures?

India has been following the same trajectory we had in France several decades ago. Their nuclear safety authority is still housed by the equivalent of our CEA (Commissariat for Atomic Energy). They have been trying to gain an autonomous status and the Indian Government has followed suit in granting them this new level of independence, via the provisions of a planned Parliamentary Bill.

Finally, there is China.

The Chinese authority, for a long time, was subject to French influence. The Vice-Minister for Environmental Protection, director of the body, speaks French. The problem is that his agency does not have the size needed to manage and oversee a programme as colossal as the Chinese Government envisages. The very notion of having independent administrative authorities is not exactly in line with current practice and thinking in China. The process will take time. We should not forget that France took 35 years before its national safety authority was deemed independent, not only de facto but de jure, i.e., with binding legal texts.

When a new country wishes to build nuclear sites, is it possible to appoint and set up a safety authority?

Well, Abou Dhabi presents an interesting case in point. Here you have a wealthy nation who wishes to “go nuclear”. It has commissioned a Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FARN) largely composed of foreigners. One of my former American counterparts has been appointed Director General of the Authority. In essence, the Emirate has imported a high level authority but it reports to a board exclusively composed of Emiratis. The quality of the relationship between the Authority and the Board is therefore primordial.

In your opinion, has Japan ‘demerited’ in terms of safety?

The fact of the matter is that Japan has a complicated nuclear safety system, with several authorities. The Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission (NRC) is housed by the Prime Minister’s Services. The NRC supervises and controls, on one hand, the work of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) which reports to the Minister for the Economy, and on the other, the Radioactive Protection Services that belong to another Ministry (the MEXT, i.e., Ministry for Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology). This distribution of the roles is confusing to say the least. I personally headed an audit mission in 2007, which issued a series of recommendations. The recommendations apparently sufficiently embarrassed the Government that they did not invite us three years later, in 2010, to assess the situation. Our analysis of the events at Fukushima was that NISA simply did not have means appropriate to handling the situation.

Could ASN have done a better job?

Let me return the compliment with three questions: firstly, did the Japanese go back sufficiently far in time to assess the destructive power of historic tsunamis? Secondly, did they run periodic equipment and system inspections for safety sensitive areas (the reports of which lead – on the basis of new data acquired – to enforcing new constraints on plant, for example, in terms of passive catalytic hydrogen recombiners)? Third and last question, what evaluation could we make about their crisis management? After the tsunami struck the coastline, the Japanese set up a large emergency and disaster assistance response team, a mix of members of NISA, of Parliament and Government; to the point that a posteriori it prevented a clear positioning of their respective areas of responsibility. This sort of shared responsibility runs counter to all our ASN operating rules.

Return of experience, when we are seeking to understand what happened and to draw conclusions and lessons, can take up to 10 years. At Three Mile Island, Connecticut, the Americans had a melt-down of the reactor core and it took them 6 years to find out what exact fraction of the core that had ‘melted’.

Would it not be better to have a single, global nuclear safety authority?

I cannot imagine that there will be a supranational authority one day, or a global authority or even a European authority for that matter. I do not believe for a second that we could have world standards that would prove legally enforceable. The simple answer here is that nuclear installations are and shall remain political objects, analogous – but in another sphere – to GMOs (genetically modified bodies). The European Commission is theoretically empowered to approve creation, use and consumption of GMOs, but the individual Members States refuse the EC diktat or do not apply the directives when they do not fit in with their national policy.

If one day we were to adopt international enforceable standards, they would of necessity be as porous as possible. We would be faced with bottom-up consensus and ipso facto nuclear safety levels would drop to the lowest common denominator. What is needed is flexibility, where countries concerned are gradually convinced that it is in their interest to comply with the standards because they have approved them and not because they were enforced. The unity we are seeking will come firstly from a harmonisation of the technical references and, subsequently, from the progress that would accrue to global safety levels. The initiative to move in this direction must come from the countries themselves and their authorities and certainly not from any supranational structure.

How much does nuclear safety cost?

Compared with the scale of the challenges, the ASN’s annual budget is ridiculously low: 150 Meuros. But the real cost is integrated in the fabrication, assembly and operation of the plant units. This is extremely difficult to evaluate. All the more so that the market for nuclear power stations is a dump market where true pricing policy is not commonplace. To win a call to tender, you even have to be prepared to lose money in the contract.

The French ASN was applauded by the NGO’s when in 2009 you denounced the command and control system of the EPR model, but on the other hand you were pilloried when you vetted the proposal to extend the operational life of the Fessenheim plant for another 10 years. Would you agree that your institutional communication to the public at large is somewhat lacking?

Our critical assessment of the EPR command and control system was taken as a general criticism of the safety level of this model of reactor, when we had only called to question the command and control system. In a wider context, ASN has always honoured it calling to be transparent, notably as the Fukushima events unfolded. Our statements were always clear, including the more unpleasant findings.

As far as Fessenheim is concerned, we have adopted a position that allows Reactor N°1 to be operated for an extra 10 years, with the proviso that by the end of the current year we shall receive results from complementary safety assessments subsequent to the events at Fukushima. This was the essence of the decision we made and the responsibility clearly lay with ASN.

In a country such as France, which produces 75% of its electricity from nuclear processes, each of your decisions in terms of operational site extension implies major economic consequences. How do you feel about this responsibility?

We are paid to occasionally say “no”. No, possibly, to restarting a reactor or to pursuing operations. We are fully empowered to do so. Outside pressures are not seen as a problem. Since Parliament voted the law in 2006, the French ASN is a legally independent body. De facto this has already been true for a long time. In respect to decisions whether or not to extend the operational life of our nuclear installations, this will be a case-by-case process for all 58 reactors. The 900 MW reactors will be the first to reach the 30 year mark. Our starting position is that we do not identify any transverse, general subject that could prevent them from being granted an extended life. But in saying so, I must stress again that it will be done case-by-case.

For those reactors that will be prolonged beyond 30 years, the real rendez-vous will be the 40 year mark. That indeed was the life span envisaged from the design and site building period. The USA, for example, have already gone beyond 40 years. The Swiss are about to decide to stop and decommission their reactors when they are 50 years old, which will occur as of year 2034. And of course it is absurd to put the Swiss and the Germans in the same basket. The Germans have decided to stop all their nuclear installations well before the end of their operational life.

André-Claude Lacoste
Chairman, Nuclear Safety Authority (France)