Three Key Steps: Taking the Nuclear Energy Agenda Beyond Fukushima

48th Japan Atomic Industrial Forum (JAIF) Annual Conference, Tokyo, Japan, 13 April 2015

William D. Magwood, IV, Director-General of the Nuclear Energy Agency

When, in 2012, I spoke at this conference as a Commissioner with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the shadow of the Fukushima Daiichi accident was very much in evidence. The immediate crisis had passed and the plant stabilized. But JAIF 2012 was the first major nuclear conference in Japan since 3/11 and uncertainty about the future was in the faces of all who attended.

My comments at that time reflected upon the strength and resilience of the Japanese people and the vital need for all of us to learn the lessons from the accident. Three years have passed since that time and much has changed. Conditions at the Fukushima Daiichi site, while still very challenging, have improved in important ways. Japan, has successfully reformed its nuclear safety regulator into a strong, independent body under whose guidance significant enhancements have been performed at all Japanese plants. After years of hard work, some Japanese nuclear power plants will soon be restarted.

Much has changed around the world as well. In the aftermath of the accident, nations around the globe developed and implemented new safety requirements that reflect the lessons of Fukushima. Regulators were forced to reconsider the conceptual basis for many of their requirements and shift more attention to beyond design basis events. The public at large became more conscious of the potential vulnerability of nuclear plants to extreme natural events. In some countries, nuclear power became controversial, sparking protests and pushing some politicians to call for the end of nuclear power. A few countries made political decisions to either phase-out or forego the use of nuclear power. During all this, dramatic shifts in the energy markets placed incredible financial pressure on many baseload power plants. Including the six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, a total of 28 commercial reactors around the world have been permanently shut down since 3/11.

Still, these developments are contrary to the global trend. Most countries continued their nuclear energy programs and many laid down plans to launch or expand their use of nuclear power. Today, more than 60 reactors are now under construction. Among others, China, Finland, Korea, India, and the United Kingdom have all announced new construction projects since Fukushima. In my home country, the United States, despite economic headwinds, five new reactors were authorized for construction after March 2011 and preparations were launched to consider the renewal of nuclear plant licenses beyond 60 years of operation. Thus, despite the tragic experience of Fukushima, the world is set to become more reliant on nuclear power, with a wider range of countries deciding to use nuclear to meet their future energy requirements.

But the legacy of that accident is pervasive. Four years after the accident, Fukushima remains the dominate area of discussion in gatherings like this. Four years after the accident, post-Fukushima actions remain at the top of most regulatory agendas around the world. Four years after the accident, no Japanese nuclear plants are online and many questions remain regarding how many will eventually return to operation. Four years after the accident, the public in Japan and other countries continue to harbor significant concerns about nuclear safety.

Clearly, we have not yet moved beyond Fukushima Daiichi.  But I believe that we will. Just as we learned hard lessons from Three Mile Island and moved on. Just as we learned from Chernobyl and moved on. We have learned from Fukushima and we will move on from that as well. But doing so requires more than simply the passage of time. Today, I reflect upon Three Key Steps I believe are necessary for us to move beyond Fukushima.

Let me begin by providing you a brief introduction to the Nuclear Energy Agency. I departed the U.S. NRC at the end of August and assumed the helm of the NEA on September 1, 2014. I have long been an admirer of the work of the NEA and had participated in its work as delegate from the United States. I served on the Nuclear Development Committee and then the NEA Steering Committee, which I eventually chaired.

The NEA was founded in 1958 and is today the principle forum for civilian nuclear energy cooperation among the world’s most advanced countries. We have 31 member countries accounting for approximately 85% of the world's installed nuclear capacity as well as vital strategic partners such as China and India.

At the core of our activities are seven standing technical committees comprised of senior governmental officials from member country research, regulatory, and policy organizations. Their expertise is brought together to solve problems, chart new courses for the future, and investigate challenging technical questions through nearly 80 working groups and more than 20 international joint projects covering numerous subject areas.

We address nuclear safety and regulation, nuclear energy development, radioactive waste management, radiological protection and public health, code development and dissemination, nuclear science, nuclear law and liability and issue reports that document our analyses and conclusions – all of which are available free of charge on our Internet site.

In recent years, the work of the NEA has been very heavily dominated by the effort to learn lessons from the Fukushima Daiichi accident and to work together to develop strategies to improve safety. Our safety committees have devoted most of their time over the last four years focusing on this area of work, addressing regulatory and safety issues and launching new research aimed at understanding the progression of the accident in the Fukushima reactors.

In 2013, the NEA published "The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident", a report on nuclear safety responses from NEA member countries, NEA actions in the follow-up to the accident, and lessons learned.  With this report as a starting point, we have generated guidance and issued reports covering many technical issues including filtered containment venting, hydrogen management, spent fuel pools under loss-of-cooling accidents, natural external hazards, the margins of metallic components under high seismic loads, and the robustness of electrical systems in nuclear power plants. Work is nearing completion on a new report that captures our members’ state-of-the art thinking regarding the concept of Defence-in-Depth in the aftermath of Fukushima.

By the end of 2016, the NEA will produce a report that will examine the state of global nuclear safety five years after the accident. This report will highlight the outcomes of various post-Fukushima nuclear safety activities, discuss how NEA member countries have implemented enhanced safety strategies and emergency response programmes and discuss the need for additional nuclear safety research.

Based on the lessons of March 2011, all nuclear plants now have or will soon have new emergency capabilities and equipment to allow operators to respond to a diverse range of events. New layers of defence-in-depth will enable cooling water to be forced into pressure vessels and spent fuel pools even when all normal plant systems have been disabled. Nuclear facilities around the world will operate with a greater understanding of the natural hazards they may face and will implement strategies to deal with very unlikely scenarios. This work has been very important and much of it is highly technical. New hardware has been added, seismically robust facilities have been built on sites, and complex analyses have been completed. 

However, while the world has appropriately invested billions in improving nuclear safety worldwide in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, we have also realized that such efforts comprise only a part of the lesson we have learned. The first Key Step toward moving beyond Fukushima is to respond to the most important lesson of the accident: dealing with the human aspects of safety.

Whatever else is said about the Fukushima disaster, it is clear that it was not a failure of technology. In fact, all evidence thus far demonstrates that the reactors responded as they were designed and, in contrast to the Chernobyl accident, the plant performed well in delaying the release of large amounts of radiation such that the public was largely protected from significant exposures. The failures were in the effectiveness of the regulator and in the decision-making over the years that allowed the plant to operate without modification despite evidence and concern expressed by several experts that the plant might be exposed to extreme tsunami events. The failures were in the lack of training of the operations staff to respond effectively to the extreme conditions with which they were faced.

Organizational decision-making; safety culture of the plant staff and the regulator; training to assure that operators are prepared for a wide range of possible challenges – these are important factors that led to or contributed to the accident, and these factors exist in many countries. If we are to truly learn the lessons of Fukushima, we must not turn away from the human aspects of safety – aspects can be both difficult to discuss and to solve. Aspects which often involve the sociological and psychological sciences more than nuclear science and engineering. Aspects which will require countries around the world to recognize that there may not be a universal safety culture, but that safety cultures must be developed to exist within a broader cultural framework.

In comparison to these issues, pouring concrete and installing emergency pumps and power systems is a simple matter. But learning half of the lessons of Fukushima is to have learned nothing at all.

We at the NEA have taken the first steps to address these issues. Our "Green Book" entitled "The Characteristics of an Effective Nuclear Regulator" was an early effort to address the issues we face in dealing with the human aspects of safety, recognizing that the first and most fundamental component of assuring nuclear safety is the presence of a safety regulatory that is strong, capable, and independent. This report reflects the views of our members on what attributes a good regulator must have. We are currently examining the safety culture of regulatory organizations; the impact on safety of human and organisational factors, and on developing methodologies and practices for ensuring safe and effective individual and organisational performance; and continue to foster exchanges in improving public communications, especially during crises.

There is much more to be done in this area. Recognizing that these less technical areas require greater focus and often the engagement of expertise unlike that typically applied to matters related to nuclear power plant operations, the NEA has changed its structure for the first time in many years. We have added a new division, which will focus exclusively on the Human Aspects of Nuclear Safety.

Our work in this area will strive to foster greater focus and build expertise in critical areas like safety culture, skills and training, and public engagement. Greater focus on these issues can enhance safety as much – and in some cases more – as the physical changes to plant equipment implemented since 3/11. It is a huge challenge, but the nuclear power community is, I believe, equal to the task. In any event, we must continue to address it if nuclear is to a have a future in Japan and many countries around the world.

The second Key Step is one that most affects Japan, but is an issue that has significant global importance: the difficult work to remediate the Fukushima Daiichi site must be successful.

I visited the site late last year and inspected many of the projects underway, including the successfully completed work to remove the spent fuel from the Unit 4 pool. Whereas my first visit to Fukushima Daiichi a few months after the accident still echoed with the traumatic events of March 11, the site now has much of the appearance of a normal power plant. Workers and visitors are no longer required to wear filter masks and other full protective gear, once necessary to walk the site. Much of the debris swept across the site during the tsunami has been cleared away. The aura of crisis has passed.

But the appearance of normality should lead no one to underestimate the magnitude of the task that lay ahead. We must acknowledge that the technology and methodologies to address many of the issues on-site do not yet exist and will still take years to perfect. All told, it is an effort that will take decades to complete.

The work is underway and some important progress is being made, but Japan and the global community need to continue working toward sustainable waste management solutions to assure success.

There are currently around 400,000 cubic meters of waste being stored on the Fukushima Daiichi site, and a portion of it is very highly radioactive. The challenge presented by the management of contaminated groundwater on the site is still visible and very problematic as water is being pumped through advanced filtering systems to remove the most harmful radionuclides before it is transferred to on-site storage tanks. At the same time, special measures such as the widely-discussed "ice barrier" are being put into place to keep additional radioactive groundwater from reaching the ocean.

The volume of contaminated water being managed is vast. In the very near future, the site may reach the limits of its capacity to construct and fill tanks to store tritium-contaminated water. Work is underway to find ways to further clean the stored water, but removing tritium from this water will be very difficult, and a practical method may never be found.   

In the absence of a solution for removing tritium from this water, Japanese authorities will be forced to consider a range of choices and none will be desirable to all stakeholders. The simple reality is that there is no perfect solution to the water issue. The status quo, however, is not sustainable; a decision about what to do with this water must be made in the not-distant future.

There is also the matter of contaminated waste being placed in deeply-dug trenches around the site. Both the NEA and the International Atomic Energy Agency have recommended that the system for characterizing and inventorying waste materials placed in trenches be improved to assure a clear record of what is going into each trench. Measuring the surface dose of the collected waste is a necessary step to further improve worker safety, but is not a sufficient level of characterization for effective management of the longer-term radioactive waste on-site. As we learned from Chernobyl, it is better to have a strong inventory and measurements system in place now to avoid far greater costs in the future.

In the end, the greatest overall challenge to dealing with this first-of-a-kind project is managing effectively all the various components of the problem and setting priorities on the basis of risk. Japanese authorities and companies have made good progress in some management and organizational areas, including the creation of the Fukushima Daiichi Decontamination Engineering Company, which provides for a more focused operations management effort at the site, and the leadership team currently in place is doing a good job under very challenging circumstances. Also, I applaud the establishment of the Nuclear Damage Compensation and Decommisioning corporation, or NDF, which is providing needed coordination to the many (technology development) efforts associated with Fukushima clean-up and I appreciate the establishment of JAEA’s Collaborative Laboratories for Advanced Decommissioning Science, which will establish a centre in Fukushima to facilitate international co-operation to find the new technologies required to complete this difficult work.

But additional steps might help bolster the prospects for success. Decisions about the water-related issues on the site would be enhanced if a well-designed integrated water management plan were established that accounts for all sources of water and contamination and is based upon detailed three-dimensional maps of the groundwater on site.

But even the water-management issue should not be viewed in isolation from the other challenges on the site. All the tasks associated with the remediation effort must be considered at once, otherwise resources and attention may be misplaced and opportunities to reduce and eliminate safety risks could be missed. With so many issues and so many organizations involved, this vitally important work could benefit from an independent, top-level management review that considers all of the governmental and industrial organizations involved in the work on the site and identifies areas that can be improved.

Until and unless the public in Japan and around the world are confident that this site can be remediated and not present a hazard to human health or the environment, we will never be able to move beyond March 11, 2011. The global community is depending on Japan to bolster public trust and confidence by completing this project successfully and negotiating through the complex sociological and economic issues that it impacts. Given the magnitude and complexity of the problem, Japanese authorities have done well thus far, but even greater challenges lay ahead. The world should support Japan’s efforts with the best technologies available, the finest research efforts we can muster, and clear-eyed advice regarding the work ahead.

I visited with high school students from Fukushima prefecture in November of last year. They were very impressive young people, some of whom had been through many hardships since 3/11. But they were outstanding examples of the resilience and determination of the people in Fukushima. They were still thinking about the future and thinking about how they could help their region recover from all the trials it has faced since the tsunami and the nuclear accident. We all owe it to them to get this job done and to do it right.

The third and final Key Step I would like to discuss today is to urge us all to turn our eyes once again to the future. Without a vision for the future, without new chapters in the story of nuclear energy technology, we will always be captive to the past and short-term concerns of the present.

Even before 3/11, many of the leading nations of the world saw investments and activity in advanced nuclear energy technologies decreasing. When the Generation IV International Forum’s Framework Agreement treaty was signed ten years ago last month, nearly a dozen countries were pursuing advanced nuclear research programs and were debating the merits of high temperature gas reactors, various fast reactor technologies, and the best strategies to create sustainable, proliferation-resistant fuel cycles.

Today, only very few nations are conducting significant research in these areas. Fewer still are planning to construct demonstration facilities to advance the state of the art in nuclear technology. One might have expected that the Fukushima accident would prompt a resurgence in research to develop advanced nuclear technologies; instead, the decline in investment has continued and, in some cases, accelerated.

This state of affairs is all the more perplexing considering the fact that global electricity demand is expected to triple by 2050. Other than hydroelectric power, the only proven alternative to nuclear for new baseload supply is fossil fuel; but at the same time, many countries plan to reduce CO2 emissions significantly over the next few decades.

Later this year, the nations of the world will gather in Paris to join the much-anticipated United Nations Conference on Climate Change, also known as "COP 21". There, leaders will consider an agreement that many hope will reduce global CO2 emissions dramatically by mid-century. Many scientists believe global emissions should be eliminated entirely by the end of the 21st Century. But how might this be accomplished?

In order to begin crafting answers to this question, the NEA and our sister organization, the International Energy Agency (IEA) collaborated on a new Technology Roadmap that assesses the challenges that must be addressed for use of nuclear energy to expand and considers the role nuclear energy could play in a low-carbon future.

To inform the analysis, we applied a scenario developed by IEA in which long-term global temperature increases are limited to just 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. Meeting this target means reducing CO2 by at least half over the next 35 years. While contributions can be made by all sectors of the global economy, changes in the electricity sector will have the greatest impact. Within that sector, among all the various technologies included in this scenario, nuclear energy makes the largest single contribution.

Under this 2 degrees C scenario, global installed nuclear generation capacity would need to reach 930 GWe by 2050 – an increase in capacity representing roughly 500 additional reactors. This is obviously a very ambitious target, but if COP 21 is successful and the world embarks on a path toward a low carbon economy, such a massive building program is a possible outcome. The NEA/IEA Technology Roadmap provides recommendations to government, industry, research and financing institutions to reduce obstacles to increased nuclear deployment.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report in 2014, calling for a dramatic increase in the use of non-fossil energy sources, and Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said last year, "The only safe path forward is to arrive at a carbon neutral world in the second half of this century. We cannot play a waiting game where we bet on future technological miracles to emerge and save the day - and why would we?"

This comment is true for all advanced technologies, but especially for nuclear technologies. If advanced research programs are not in place today, the technologies of tomorrow will not be available to support our long-term goals. To address this, the NEA will soon launch an International Nuclear Innovation Roadmap though which we will work with interested countries to ask and answer questions such as:

As a first step, we are developing a survey to understand what R&D is currently underway. This will form the basis of a gap analysis that will help us highlight the areas of advanced technology research that may be vital if we are to meet the world’s environmental policy goals.

Our goal, however, is to develop a global context for advanced nuclear energy technology research, development and innovation and to enable national research programs to be part of an international effort to assure that the technologies of the future will be available when they are needed.

I note that all of the steps I have highlighted today – dealing with the human aspects of nuclear safety, remediating the Fukushima Daiichi site, and establishing a renewed vision for global nuclear energy technology development – all of these steps will require a strong, highly trained workforce. We must assure that institutions of higher learning maintain strong programs to produce the nuclear engineers and scientists that will be needed now and as long as nuclear technology continues to play a vital role in our societies.

We must encourage young people in Japan and around world to view careers in nuclear technology as careers to build a stronger, safer, better future. We must also do far more encourage and foster young women to take their rightful place as engineers, researchers, and managers in the nuclear field.

I will conclude my remarks today with this: If these three steps are taken successfully, we will move beyond Fukushima Daiichi. We will learn its lessons, grow stronger, and operate more safely. We will see the people of Fukushima go back to their lives and homes. We will see young people excited by careers in nuclear technology. Once these steps are taken, we can move beyond 3/11 and get back to the business of building a world we can pass proudly to the next generation and the generations that follow.