Ensuring radiological protection during armed conflict

NEA-DSA workshop image00001 (1)

130 experts from 28 countries, NGOs and international bodies met to attend the NEA workshop on radiological protection during armed conflict in Oslo on 22-24 November.

The war in Ukraine has raised new and urgent questions about radiological protection and how to improve operational and regulatory resilience in times of armed conflict. While the existing principles of radiological protection remain valid, all countries can benefit from bolstering their plans and procedures to best cope with such new threats and heightened levels of uncertainty.

The NEA Committee on Radiological Protection and Public Health (CRPPH), which has reviewed these complex issues since the start of the war in Ukraine, and the Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (DSA), which has been deeply engaged with Ukrainian nuclear safety activities for many years, co-organised a workshop in Oslo during 22-24 November to deepen understanding of the lessons learnt in Ukraine.  This workshop, “Radiological Protection During Armed Conflict” brought together 130 experts from 28 countries, NGOs and international bodies to share experience and discuss ways to improve the resilience of radiological protection (RP) in such volatile circumstances. met in Oslo.

The workshop featured contributions from about 50 speakers with diverse backgrounds, and discussions that spanned the spectrum of radiological protection during armed conflict. The programme's breadth emphasised the urgency and relevance of the workshop's objectives.

“The situation in Ukraine is unprecedented,” NEA Director-General William D. Magwood, IV said in his opening remarks at the event. “The nuclear sector has a responsibility to protect public health and safety, and this situation has demonstrated that new frameworks and approaches are needed to ensure radiological protection during armed conflict. This workshop is a critical first step in carving out what that future framework should be.”

NEA-DSA workshop image00001 (3) 

Panel discussion on lessons learnt chaired by NEA Director-General William D. Magwood, IV.

The presentations from the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine (SNRIU), the State Scientific and Technical Centre for Nuclear and Radiation Safety (SST-NRS), and other Ukrainian organisations drew a picture of the situation in the country. All types of nuclear facilities and related infrastructures have suffered various negative impacts, from occupations, bombings, theft of radioactive sources, to disruptive events impacting day-to-day work, transport and waste management. This situation, combined with a lack of equipment and human resources, generates a high level of stress for workers, families and the entire population. Reports were then also given on the activities and decisions of neighbouring countries to prepare for such situations as well as other national examples of how to deal with hostile actions.

NEA-DSA workshop image00001 (4)

Oleh Korikov, Chair of the State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate of Ukraine, speaking about the situation on the ground.

Clearly, war weakens nuclear and radiological safety in many ways. No country has so far fully developed specific regulatory and operational provisions for nuclear safety and radiological protection for their civilian nuclear facilities in case of war—though some have begun to put such frameworks in place. Some countries may determine that routine operations at nuclear facilities, as well as plans and procedures on radiation emergency preparedness, response and recovery, may need to be adapted to take account of the potential of armed conflict. 

NEA-DSA workshop image00001 (5)

Director General Per Strand of the Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (DSA) providing remarks.

A particularly interactive component was the “What if” session, during which participants had a hands-on opportunity to deal with hypothetical scenarios, including potential radiological emergencies caused by war-related damage to nuclear and radiological facilities. These scenarios, viewed from the perspectives of both the conflicted country and its neighbours, aimed to stimulate discussions and generate recommendations on how to respond to an active armed conflict at a nuclear site.

A panel discussion moderated by NEA Director-General Magwood focused on the role and responsibilities of nuclear safety and radiological protection regulators during wartime. The consensus was that regulators need to adapt and make decisions considering other risks, while adhering to the principles already in place, mainly justification and optimisation, which are core principles of the application of the international RP system when deciding protective actions.

As during the COVID-19 crisis, some activities in Ukraine were deferred to prioritise the health and safety of staff. Although a pandemic is not the same as war, it did highlight the need for regulators and operators/licensees to be able to adapt their work to radically new situations. Countries may be faced with multiple, simultaneous crises and national authorities will have to protect people using the principles and regulations in place and adapting their practices as necessary. In the regulatory frameworks, pre-defining operational actions that can be stopped, deferred or reduced in scope (e.g. transportation, inspections) given the prevailing circumstances, may contribute to radiological protection of the public and the environment and help reduce threats. For example, regarding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant license, the question was raised whether operations should continue with a reduced level of safety or if standards should be maintained despite the changing risks related to the damaged state of certain infrastructures and the lack of information due to non-operational environmental monitoring systems.

The discussions highlighted that the effectiveness of international conventions and treaties depends on the willingness of the parties involved in the conflict to abide by these rules. In armed conflict, there is no way to enforce such agreements.  In this respect, it was also noted that more can be done in terms of physical protection to make nuclear power plants more secure and safe, retaining the idea of making them as robust as reasonably achievable. The design-basis approach was discussed, with the suggestion of including anti-missile/anti-drone protection to minimise risk. The importance of insurance with a higher risk for an accident at a nuclear power plant was also highlighted, together with the tricky question of the ownership and liability of nuclear operators in the event of an accident at an occupied plant.

In terms of potential actions to be implemented with the help of international co-operation, it is essential to maintain skilled human resources on the ground and at the workplaces where capacities are reduced, and this could be improved by enhancing radiation safety culture. Without the ad hoc capacities of authorities, their related organisations and operators, nothing can be achieved. The discussion revolved around how to provide them with equipment and logistics to fulfil safety requirements and how third parties can support. Many countries are currently assisting Ukraine from a radiological and nuclear safety perspective, demonstrating the capability to mobilise resources to support workers. 

The insights from Ukraine improved understanding of the reality on the ground and how organisational and operational resilience can be enhanced within radiological protection and nuclear safety frameworks during armed conflicts. The key takeaway is the importance of the system's adaptability. To make regulatory frameworks more flexible and capable of rapidly implementing new operational RP plans and procedures during armed conflict, it may useful to update national regulatory assessments for emerging threats, such recently implemented by the Finnish regulator. This approach involves revisiting regulations, dedicated capabilities and resources to cope with potential threats. A similar methodology has been applied over the past decade in the framework of the bilateral co-operation between Norway and Ukraine (i.e. DSA, SNRIU and SSTC-NRS), leading to the prioritisation of new procedures and regulations in response to identified threats, with numerous technical and scientific projects to support them.

Furthermore, it is crucial to foster international collaboration and knowledge sharing, including learning from each other’s experiences and best practices and integrating them into national frameworks. The NEA Standing Technical Committees, mainly the CRPPH and the Committee on Nuclear Regulatory Activities, will also be looking to the findings from this workshop and potential impacts on their work, one possible example being taking account of potential armed conflict in the construct of the national nuclear emergency planning and preparedness provisions.

The workshop not only shed light on the unique challenges to radiological protection posed by the war in Ukraine but also fostered a sense of shared responsibility in addressing these and similar concerns worldwide. A summary report of the workshop is currently under development and is expected to be available in early 2024.

Visit here for more on the NEA's work on radiological protection. 

See also