Nuclear, Reactors

Will the New WANO Have Enough Teeth?

Issue 1 and Volume 116.

By Brian Schimmoller, Contributing Editor

When established in 1989, the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) was modeled on the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), the U.S. entity formed in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident to drive continuous improvements in safety and performance. By many accounts, however, WANO has not had the same clout with its global membership as INPO has had with the U.S. nuclear fleet. Recommendations approved by the WANO board in response to the Fukushima Daiichi accident are intended to increase WANO’s relevance and value, but success will hinge on whether the “new” WANO can effectively carry out a more ambitious mission across a diverse membership. In other words, will the tiger have enough teeth?

It’s never comforting to acknowledge that good things can come from bad events. It’s an explicit admission that the collective “we” weren’t good enough, smart enough, prepared enough to anticipate and plan for such an occurrence. As tragic as the failure at Fukushima was, however, it would be made worse if the global nuclear community failed to learn as much as possible from it. One of the critical players in this learning will be WANO, which will need to significantly expand its stature. To use a baseball analogy, WANO must shed its historical role as a utility player and fully embrace a needed transition to everyday superstar.

At its 11th Biennial General Meeting in Shenzen, China this past October, the WANO membership approved a series of recommendations developed by a special post-Fukushima commission and endorsed by the WANO governing board. The recommendations address:

  • Expanding the scope of WANO’s activities
  • Developing a worldwide integrated event response strategy
  • Improving WANO’s credibility, including important changes to WANO’s peer review process
  • Improving WANO visibility
  • Improving the quality of all WANO products and services

Commenting on the recommendations, WANO Chairman Laurent Stricker said, “It is clear that our industry has recognized and risen to the challenges ahead by pledging its commitment to a new, stronger WANO. The events of this year have led many organizations to fundamentally reassess their roles, responsibilities and effectiveness, and WANO is no exception. The changes to WANO that have been approved today underscore our shift as an organization from simply accident prevention, to prevention and mitigation.”

I applaud WANO for this initiative. Too often we hear about individuals and organizations trying to avoid blame when bad things happen. Claims of “That couldn’t happen here” typically echo in the aftermath of such events. And while such claims may be true in this instance because the circumstances at Fukushima Daiichi likely couldn’t be reproduced entirely elsewhere, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other accident scenarios that pose a measurable risk. I find the introspection that Fukushima compelled at WANO both notable and commendable.

The recommendations could not have been easy for WANO to formulate and accept. They indicate that, pre-Fukushima, WANO’s scope wasn’t sufficiently broad, that its credibility wasn’t universally acknowledged, that its visibility was inadequate, and that the quality of its products and services was sub-par. A sober but necessary assessment, particularly when one considers the expected growth in global nuclear capacity.

The changes desired for WANO will not be easy. Consider first the sheer diversity of membership across WANO. Membership in WANO, divided among the four regional centers in Atlanta, Paris, Moscow and Tokyo, comprises more than 30 countries – most with operating nuclear reactors, some with aspiring national nuclear power programs. Commercial nuclear power in each country has evolved along different paths, with different safety, performance, and business constructs. Achieving unity of purpose and defining common standards across such diversity will be complicated.

Achieving consensus on commercial nuclear power issues could be even more difficult because of differing perspectives on national sovereignty, energy security, safety standards, proliferation, etc. Even considering the nuclear industry’s laudable record of cooperation and collaboration, global consensus will be complicated.

The WANO role will be further complicated by the fact that there is a wider variety of nuclear plant designs globally than there is in the U.S. While INPO primarily only addresses light water reactor designs, WANO has to maintain technical expertise across a much wider spectrum of reactor designs, including heavy water reactors, gas-cooled reactors, and graphite-moderated reactors. The diversity in design will add complexity to WANO’s mission.

I’m particularly intrigued by WANO’s commitment to develop an integrated event response strategy. Fukushima demonstrated that the nuclear industry was not prepared to quickly and effectively respond to such a multi-unit accident. WANO sounds ready to fill this vacuum and create the infrastructure needed to implement an event response capability. Correcting this blind spot will be critical to sustaining public support moving forward.

In the end, INPO and WANO likely will be highly interdependent, sharing everything from lessons learned to technical resources to performance metrics. There are already close ties between the two organizations – ties that will be tested but tightened as the nuclear industry evolves post-Fukushima.

The tiger may need some teeth, but at least it’s on the hunt.

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