Prepared for the worst - anticipating nuclear emergencies3 December 2014
Being caught off-guard in any kind of nuclear emergency could have disastrous consequences, so plant operators take great care to anticipate crises. Emergency preparedness coordinator Jean-Francois Lafortune briefs Elly Earls on the role played by the International Atomic Energy Agency in ensuring its member states are ready for any eventuality.
The catastrophic failure at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant following the March 2011 tsunami led to a huge amount of radioactive material being released. It served as a stark demonstration to the world of the critical importance of preparednessin any kind of radiological or nuclear emergency, regardless of its cause.
Since then, emergency readiness procedures, systems, protocols and response actions have been reviewed and re-reviewed at reactors across the globe.
It's not a burden that must be borne exclusively by nuclear operators and their stakeholders, though. The International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) Emergency Preparedness Review (EPREV) Service, which is constantly being improved and updated in response to feedback and the lessons learned from events such as Fukushima, can go a long way to helping its member states develop their processes, systems and training programmes to the level required to be prepared for even the most severe and unexpected nuclear emergencies.
EPREV is a service provided by the IAEA's Incident and Emergency Centre (IEC) to assess the level of preparedness for nuclear or radiological emergencies of the nations under its auspices. Each country's capabilities are evaluated by a team of IAEA Secretariat and international experts, who compare its preparedness and response arrangements with current safety standards and good practices, and then recommend improvements where applicable.
"It's really an independent peer review by experts in various areas related to emergency preparedness and response, done on the basis of the IAEA safety standards," says IAEA's emergency preparedness coordinator Jean-Francois Lafortune.
"It's one of the several IAEA peer review missions that we carry out, which also include operational safety reviews (OSARTs) and integrated regulatory reviews (IRRs).
All of these missions complement each other to make sure that nuclear safety is properly reviewed and enhanced."
An EPREV mission involves a comprehensive review of the radiological and nuclear hazard, or risk profile, of the country that requests the review, followed by assessments of its national framework for nuclear and radiological emergency preparedness and response, as well as its plans, procedures, tools, systems, strategies and coordinating arrangements at all levels, from national down to local.
"It also involves a number of interviews with the main stakeholders, and a number of visits to the sites and facilities that are covered by the scope of the mission that was requested," Lafortune adds.
EPREV missions result in three different types of finding: recommendations, suggestions and the identification of good practices.
"Recommendations are quite strong, and mean that a member state is not really thoroughly in line with IAEA standards," Lafortune explains. "We also have suggestions, which mean that what the state is doing is consistent with IAEA standards, but there may be better ways of doing it. Finally, we identify good practices, which are things member states are doing that we can bring to the attention of the rest of the world."
An EPREV mission is not, as Lafortune is keen to emphasise, designed to solve whatever problems it finds. "The purpose of an EPREV mission is to identify areas in which improvements are needed, not directly resolve issues. The host state must come up with the solutions.
Of course, the IAEA will assist them in implementing them, and provide and suggest relevant recommendations, but ultimately it is up to individual countries to find the solutions that are most appropriate for them."
EPREV was initially developed at the request of the IAEA's member nations, which wanted to benefit from an independent review of their emergency preparedness and response arrangements, but it has evolved significantly after its first mission in 1999.
"The idea is to make everything we do constantly better based on the experience we gather from the previous missions, and also based on the feedback we get from the countries who have hosted them," says Lafortune. "We are constantly striving to improve the service."
Major improvements over the years have included increasingly flexible mission times ("The mission time is now adapted to the scope of the mission and we have made great effort to make the scope totally flexible, based on the request by the country, meaning we can focus on specific risk areas and priorities they may have," Lafortune explains); enhancement of the self-assessment tool that members can use to evaluate and review their own capabilities in light of the IAEA standards; and the introduction of an automatic follow-up mission, which now takes place two to four years after the main mission to verify the implementation of the action plan that was put in place to address the original EPREV recommendations.
The review team's training programmes have also been improved, as have the tools used to standardise the way reviews are conducted across the board.
Fukushima: the fall-out for EPREV
Of course, the Fukushima catastrophe in 2011, which had a profound impact on the entire nuclear safety sector, was a particularly important time in EPREV's evolution.
"It was a significant time in history and it affected everything we do," Lafortune recalls. "It forced us to look at the EPREV and question whether or not our methodology took into account the extremely complex challenges that we face during such severe emergencies."
The IAEA eventually decided that its approach was fundamentally correct, but it took the opportunity to further improve its services, nevertheless.
"We've included more comprehensive and more specific questions on the resilience of the emergency preparedness and response arrangement, to try to assess the capability of host states to deal with the kinds of severe emergencies they may be faced with," Lafortune notes. "We also now scrutinise more carefully any detailed operational arrangements that are in place, taking into account their resilience in the face of extreme crises, especially in situations that may involve coincident natural hazards."
Outside the EPREV programme, changes have been made to IAEA as a whole, Lafortune adds, as a result of the findings from EPREV missions: "We've greatly intensified training in emergency public communication in all regions of the globe, developed a new course on emergency preparedness and response optimisation, and consolidated a nifty training package for medical response during emergencies, to give just a few examples," he says.
Regardless of external events, requesting feedback is an ongoing priority for EPREV, and the programme's latest meeting in July 2014, in Vienna, which was arranged by the IAEA to discuss member states' experiences of the EPREV service and suggest areas for improvement, was a big success.
"There were a number of lessons identified by the participating member states," says Lafortune. "Interestingly, one of the positives from the meeting was that all the member states present agreed that it didn't matter how developed you were: all member states could benefit from independent and objective peer reviews by like-minded experts."
"The key here is that [these missions] can lead to real and transparent improvements in the ability of states to prepare and respond to radiation emergencies. Of course, it's good for developing countries, but it also benefits countries with established nuclear programmes; that was a key finding and recommendation at the meeting."
A number of ways to improve the service were also suggested, although many of these focused on areas upon which IAEA had already begun work. "One of them was the improvement of the self-assessment tool," Lafortune says. "The meeting found that this tool, once it is completely developed, can be used by all countries, even those that do not currently host an EPREV mission."
Meeting participants also recommended that EPREV continues to focus on operational issues during reviews, as well as emphasising the importance of reviewing the ability of all stakeholders to carry out their functions in a realistic manner during a very severe emergency.
Of course, EPREV is just one way in which the IAEA works to ensure that its member states are as prepared as possible for any sort of nuclear or radiological emergency. Other review services, such as OSARTs, IRRs and regular workshops focusing on sharpening participants' theoretical and practical skills related to emergency preparedness and response, as well as high-level meetings of competent authorities, all serve to complement the ever-improving EPREV service.
And there's little reason to believe the team behind the service will start resting on its laurels. "The only thing I'd like to re-emphasise is that we are constantly trying to improve the service with meetings, workshops and feedback sessions," Lafortune concludes.