"WENRA more necessary than ever"

Posted March 19, 2014, 11:39 a.m.

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15 years ago the Western European Nuclear Regulators Association WENRA was founded. In this interview, its initiator and founder, André-Claude Lacoste talks about the beginning, the importance of “club-values” and of why the work of WENRA is more important than ever.

WENRA was founded in February 1999. 13 years had passed since the Chernobyl catastrophe, and the accident of Fukushima was still 12 years in the future. Which were the reasons for forming this association?

I was appointed head of the French regulatory body in 1993. While acknowledging the importance that nuclear safety should remain a national responsibility, I also recognized a strong need for more international cooperation. We started having informal meetings with heads of other European regulatory bodies. An idea formed to start a group to work on harmonizing regulations and requirements on the European level. But of course, I was well aware of the difficulties of this challenge.

Simultaneously, the up-and-coming 2004 EU eastern enlargement posted new challenges on the EU regarding nuclear safety. There was a concern about the status of nuclear safety in the applicant countries. At this time, however, there was no gathered legal or technical competence within the EU, and so we, the Heads of the (then 9) EU nations with nuclear power plants assisted the European Commission in assessing nuclear safety in the applicant countries by looking at their regulatory systems and assessing the safety of their nuclear power plants. This, however, was a difficult task, since the work of the Western European regulatory bodies was also far from being harmonized.

The assessments resulted in the publication of a report in 1999 which served as technical basis to shut down several nuclear power plants in the applicant countries (Kozloduy 1-2 in Bulgaria, Ignalia 1-2 in Lithuania, Bohunice 1-2 in Slovakia). These were no easy decisions to make, but they were clear outcomes of this early WENRA report.

When the applicant countries formally joined in 2003, WENRA became a network of chief nuclear safety regulators in Europe exchanging experience and discussing significant safety issues, in addition to the previous objectives of the harmonization of the regulatory work in Europe. This is, however, a work still in progress, a long-term issue.

Which are WENRA’s most important achievements? 

The progress made in reaching a harmonized approach to nuclear safety and regulation, particularly within the European Union is certainly one of the main achievements. The work done this far by the working groups on reactor harmonization (RHWG) and waste and decommissioning (WGWD) is absolutely huge and a perfect example on how necessary and valuable the work of this group can be.

Another achievement is, as already mentioned above, the assessment and the ensuing closure of technically insufficient nuclear power plants in some of the applicant countries.

Thirdly our work on the EU stress tests must be highlighted. During the plenary meeting in March 2011, we decided to start working on terms of reference for the stress test, providing ENSREG with an independent regulatory technical definition of a stress test and how it should be applied to nuclear facilities around Europe. A working group was formed and at the end of the meeting a draft Terms of Reference was approved. This was done before the political decision to conduct stress tests had been made. During the whole EU stress test process these terms of reference were used as basis for the stress test. This is another great example of good work produced by WENRA in a pressured situation.

There are a number of similar organizations, EURATOM, ENSREG, INSAG and a vast number of working groups and committees within the NEA and IAEA, not to mention the EU’s increasing interest in nuclear safety regulation. Is WENRA still necessary?

Yes, very much so. WENRA does not belong to the same kind as the other organizations mentioned. These were created by official entities. It is important to note that WENRA is not an association of countries but a club of the heads of nuclear authorities of the European countries. This is an important distinction. WENRA was created on a voluntary basis and is not formalized in the same way as the other mentioned organisations. The Terms of Reference of WENRA consist of one page, signed by all members, and can be changed at any time. I think experience has shown that sort of light organization has the ability to face challenges, take decisions, and produce concrete results, also under pressure and in a hurry, if necessary. WENRA was created from a bottom-up basis, from a real will of the members to work together. All the other organizations are top-down. I think it safe to say that WENRA is more important now than ever.

In earlier interviews you have highlighted the value of WENRA’s “club-structure” with members participating on a voluntary basis. Why do you think the club structure is to be preferred?

WENRA is a fragile organisation based on the will of a limited number of people to cooperate. But this is also its strength. Its members actually want to cooperate. We have open, frank discussions among independent peers within the club. In any formal organization, where we represent our countries, the debate is more formal, and a lot of views are hidden or not mentioned clearly. For me this is one of the most important things about the club structure. We can have an open and frank discussion.

On the other side this open atmosphere is also a challenge. The atmosphere of trust is crucial for an organisation like WENRA to work and this puts high demands on its members. The success of WENRA is dependent on the will of its members to cooperate fully, and a mutual understanding of the need for harmonization and continuously improved nuclear safety. 

The acronym WENRA means Western European Nuclear Regulators Association and originally there were only West European countries involved. Today WENRA also comprises several Eastern European countries. Has there never been a discussion to change the name?

Yes, we have discussed this. When our colleagues from the eastern European countries joined, it was suggested to change the name to the European Nuclear Regulators Association, or ENRA. It was unanimously decided, however, not to do so, since WENRA was already a well-known brand, and you do not change well-known brands lightly. Also, since the new members said that they were considering themselves as “Westerners”, we unanimously decided to keep the old name.

Is WENRA merely a European issue? Some countries outside of Europe have expressed an interest in joining. Assuming that countries in Europe’s close neighbourhood continue with their nuclear programs, do you think WENRA should also be open to non-European countries?

We have made very good experiences with countries like Ukraine first as an observer and hopefully someday as a member, but we must also be cautious with welcoming new members. Enlargement just for the sake of it is pointless. I think that focusing on European issues still is the way forward. We should not look too far abroad. Most important is that there is a possibility to work in an open and frank way with the heads of the national safety bodies. There must be no damage to the atmosphere of trust. As a club we can choose which members we like. They should be ready to participate, as members of a club, not disseminating information or hiding anything.

This year the revised EU nuclear safety directive will be published. There is some concern that a stronger involvement of the European Commission might conflict with the responsibilities of the national regulatory bodies. How can this problem be solved? Which competences could rest with the European Commission and which competences need to be maintained by the national regulatory bodies?

It is a difficult issue. At the time of the EU eastern enlargement, there was no gathered legal or technical competence within the EU, so we played a role that only we could play. Now the EU commission wants more responsibility. The first step was the publication of two directives, one on nuclear safety and another on waste management.

A directive is a political decision which should be taken by the countries. But those who promote it should answer one crucial question. What does the directive bring to increase nuclear safety in Europe? This must be summarized in two or three sentences. For me it is mandatory to show the value of the new European directive, what it brings to enhance nuclear safety in Europe.

The discussion will go on, and I hope WENRA can contribute to clarify how the new EU directive can enhance nuclear safety. Also, the safety directive has been drafted mainly by WENRA members.

Is this not a contradiction, to be a member of WENRA and then have to represent your country in the same issues?

Of course not! This is something that I have been trying to explaining to many of my colleagues. A person can be totally independent when in WENRA, representing his or her regulatory authority. And sometimes the same person is under instructions from his government by ENSREG. It is up to the person to join these two roles.

What are the biggest challenges for WENRA within the coming years?  

The major challenge for WENRA, shared with Heads of European Radiation Competent Authorities HERCA, is to harmonize emergency preparedness in Europe if an accident like Fukushima should happen. Would the regulatory bodies be able to work in a consistent way to take appropriate measures to protect the population? This is a terribly difficult topic. But it needs to be dealt with. There are a lot of political and trans-national issues, and old habits to be dealt with.

Another challenge for us is new builds outside of the WENRA countries’ border. New plants are being built in Russia, Turkey and Belarus.
Then we have the design of new reactors. We need to make sure that all European countries use plants that fulfil the WENRA safety reference levels. This is a matter of consistence: We develop and approve the safety reference levels, but do we also apply them?

These are difficult challenges, but this is nothing new for us. We are growing with the challenges. And, most important, we are committed. As a member of a club, you should really be convinved that you are doing something positive, something useful. I believe this can be applied to our members.

In March this year, it was three years since Fukushima. Which are the most important lessons to be learned from this catastrophe?

Worldwide, there are two things: We cannot permit the possibility of large or long-term off-site contamination. Some say that Fukushima was not a horrible accident because no one was killed because of radiation. But this is unacceptable. It is not possible to accept accidents like that with large or long-term off-site contamination. This is in the same time an issue for safety and for the  environment protection.

For new builds, the safety objective must be to prevent accidents. And should an accident occur the objectives must be to mitigate its consequences to avoid large or long-term off-site contamination.

For existing reactors the safety objective for new reactors should serve as reference.

But some countries will not be enthusiastic about these objectives. Some do not think that they have to update their old reactors.

But there is another lesson, especially for Europe: If an accident like this should occur in Europe, the management of such a crisis has to be internationally harmonized. There is a need for extending the cooperation within this field.

Has the international community done enough to implement these lessons?

No, far from enough. In Europe I think that many countries  have done a lot of work. We in Europe believe in the necessity to strive for the continuous improvement of nuclear safety, in other parts of the world they strive for maintenance of safety. There is a fundamental difference between these approaches. Some try to tell me that the concept of “maintaining nuclear safety” also includes some  improvements, but I do not agree with that. You also find the idea of continuous progress within the short terms of reference of WENRA, based on the idea of continuous safety improvements.

It is important that Europe continues to take a leading role in striving for improved nuclear safety worldwide. There are around 180 nuclear power plant units operating in the European countries. That is more than a third of the world’s fleet. This means something. But it also means that we need to work unanimously and consistently to uphold our common goal by tirelessly promoting the idea of the continuous improvement of nuclear safety. And WENRA has an important role to play in this promotion.

Recently you chaired the 6th Review Meeting of the Convention on Nuclear Safety. What are your main conclusions from this meeting, particularly in the light of the WENRA objectives of harmonization and continuous safety improvement? 

The attendance and level of participation in the Review Meeting was generally good with a lively and frank exchange of information. Nevertheless, there were discussions on the way to improve the effective participation of all Contracting Parties at all steps of the process.

Also, in order to reinforce the effectiveness of the Convention Peer Review process, the Contracting Parties approved modifications of the Convention Guideline documents. These modifications aim to ensure greater consistency in reporting and to enhance international cooperation.

The Contracting Parties also decided with a 2/3 majority to organise a Diplomatic Conference in order to examine a proposal from Switzerland to amend Article 18 of the Convention addressing the design and construction of both existing and new nuclear power plants.

In addition to this the Contracting Parties reconfirmed their commitment to the findings of the 2nd Extraordinary Meeting held in August 2012 and made the following statement:

"The displacement of people and the land contamination after the Fukushima Daiichi accident calls for all national regulators to identify provisions to prevent and mitigate the potential for severe accidents with off-site consequences.

- Nuclear power plants should be designed, constructed and operated with the objectives of preventing accidents and, should an accident occur, mitigating its effects and avoiding off-site contamination.

- The Contracting Parties also noted that regulatory authorities should ensure that these objectives are applied in order to identify and implement appropriate safety improvements at existing plants."

It was proposed to convene a Topical Meeting in 2015 to discuss enhancing safety of existing nuclear power plants in light of lessons learnt from the Fukushima Daiichi accident.

I think that the results of the 6th Review Meeting of the Convention on Nuclear Safety are well in line with the WENRA objectives. But by definition continuous safety improvement is an endless duty and we have a huge amount of work in front of us.

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