Japan-style nuclear safety errors abound, regulator warns

Japan’s nuclear safety failures that led to last year’s disaster at Fukushima are being repeated in other countries that operate atomic reactors, according to France’s top regulator.

Nuclear safety focuses too much on technology and not enough on the human side of preventing accidents, Andre-Claude Lacoste, 70, the outgoing head of the French Autorite de Surete Nucleaire, said in an interview. France is the most dependent country in the world on nuclear power, which is produced from state-owned utility Electricite de France SA’s 58 reactors.

Regulators in some countries, which he declined to name, lack enough independence from industry and government to be able to identify nuclear safety shortfalls, Lacoste said. In some small nations, atomic experts regularly rotate between jobs at safety authorities, operators and research organizations, creating conflicts of interest and a deep-seated reluctance to raise the alarm about potentially dangerous situations.

“In some societies, solidarity between people is more important than transparency, and this means that errors aren’t questioned and are hard to correct,” said Lacoste, who has overseen French nuclear safety for two decades. “There are countries where transparency isn’t a virtue.”

Japan has acknowledged nuclear safety shortcomings after a tsunami in March 2011 knocked out power supply, disrupting the cooling process that led to reactor meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant. The accident necessitated mass evacuations and led to long-term environmental damage. As a consequence, Japan plans to scrap atomic power by the end of the 2030s.
Peer Review

Lacoste headed a peer review of Japan’s nuclear regulatory system in 2007, which he said “explicitly” warned the country of shortcomings and recommended creating an independent watchdog that would separate safety oversight from the government ministry that promoted atomic power.

“The Japanese situation wasn’t good,” said Lacoste. He was informed that the Japanese government had rejected his recommendations at the end of 2010. He has since called Fukushima a “collective failure.”

Still, after overseeing the transformation of France’s atomic regulator from being part of a government ministry into an authority whose independence is enshrined in a 2006 law, Lacoste refuses to publicly name countries where safety doesn’t meet his standards. Finger-pointing would be counter-productive, he said.
Safety Rating

On March 14, 2011, three days after the tsunami at Fukushima, Lacoste held a press conference in Paris. He was the first regulator to publicly rate the event a 6 on the seven-step ranking of nuclear accidents, describing how a meltdown at the plant’s reactors had probably already released more radioactivity than during the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the worst in U.S. history. The 1986 accident at Chernobyl was rated a seven.

French atomic safety experts led by Lacoste continued their daily briefings for more than a week, commenting on methods used at Fukushima to deal with explosions and safeguard the population. They raised the alarm about dangerously high radiation levels likely received by emergency workers and provided estimates of how far radioactive fallout could travel around the world. The French were among the first in Europe to be informed when low levels of radioactivity from the Japanese site were detected on home soil.

That contrasted with the aftermath of Chernobyl, when French nuclear safety experts denied the radioactive cloud had passed overhead. It was also a departure from the secrecy that surrounded the country’s worst atomic accident, the 1980 partial meltdown of a reactor core at Saint-Laurent-des-Eaux in central France.

Fukushima allowed Lacoste to test the French watchdog’s independence, which granted him power to shut down nuclear installations. The stakes were high in a nuclear-dependent country, which had up until Fukushima enjoyed popular backing for the energy as well as support from major political parties. France’s atomic energy program, started under President Charles de Gaulle, has spawned an industry employing hundreds of thousands of workers. Exporting nuclear technology is a key strategy of EDF and reactor-maker Areva SA. (AREVA)

Polls showed popular support wobbled in the months after the Japanese accident, triggering a political schism during the ensuing presidential election won by Socialist Francois Hollande. He has pledged to lower the country’s reliance on atomic energy to half of power output from more than 75 percent today.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault yesterday said Pierre- Franck Chevet, the environment and energy ministry’s top official, would be proposed to parliament as a replacement for Lacoste, whose non-renewable term at the ASN ends next month.
No Basis

Fukushima has slowed expansion of nuclear energy to countries that don’t already have reactors. The disaster prompted the ASN to bar French companies from exporting reactor technology considered less safe that Areva’s EPR model, a situation that would create “two-speed” safety, he said.

Less than 10 new countries will acquire the technology within two decades, according to Lacoste. His estimate is less than the some three dozen nations considered by industry group World Nuclear Association to be considering projects. Many of those are “the stuff of dreams,” according to Lacoste.

“The challenge isn’t to buy a reactor, it’s to install and operate it,” he said. “In many countries the infrastructure to develop nuclear energy is absent, there is a need for trained people, a legal framework and a watchdog. This takes time. A country can say they are going to get into nuclear energy but in reality there is no chance this will happen. Lots of these projects have no basis.”