By Steven Pike, Argon Electronics
Establishing sustainable sources of energy is high on the agenda of both the public and their elected representatives, and the nuclear industry is currently able to satisfy consumer demand to a greater degree than, say, wind power. Nevertheless, opinion remains split between those who support nuclear energy and those who would either wind it down, or back legislation to force power stations into the most remote locations. In October 2013, The Guardian report, “A survey for the UK Energy Research Centre,” last month found similar proportions of people supporting (32 percent) and opposing (29 percent) nuclear power, compared to 26 percent and 37 percent in 2005. But renewables remain far and away the public’s first choice. The latest Mori poll, in February, showed that public support for building new nuclear power stations had fallen from 50 percent in 2012 to 42 percent. There is still a substantial level of public concern over the storage of radioactive waste and nuclear accidents.”
A recent report by safety experts did little to reassure the public. The report revealed that staff at a major nuclear facility did “not have the level of capability required to respond to nuclear emergencies effectively,” a situation that “could have led to delays in responding to a nuclear emergency and a prolonged release of radioactive material off-site.” The inspectors found evidence of “significant deficiencies around availability of resources, frequency and quality of training, competency and operational preparedness.” The safety exercise had been designed to test the capabilities of the site’s fire and rescue team to locate two people after a fictional accident that led to the spillage of radioactive liquid and an aerial release of radioactivity. Despite the fact that the exercise presented “simple scenarios under ideal conditions,” a report from the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) judged that the service’s resources were “stretched” and “there were insufficient numbers of firefighters to achieve the objectives.”
On the positive side, a spokesman for the site said the successful introduction of an IRMP (Integrated Risk Management Plan) had subsequently led to an improvement notice being “closed out” by the ONR (Office For Nuclear Regulation). The IRMP was the first of its kind for the site and has been considered of such value that the ONR has asked for the advice within to be shared with other operators as an example of ‘best practice.’
Clearly, the reports above indicate that it is necessary to enhance and improve training in radiological instrument use within the civil nuclear sector. They also show that it is important to make the public aware of all the progress that is being made to enhance safety. On the basis that resistance to nuclear power tends to come from the public, who naturally react with alarm to newspaper scare stories and misinformation, there is clearly a need to report the many measures that are being put in place to maximise safety, and that includes the on-going technological advance in the detection systems that can be used. This in turn has generated an ever growing and increasingly critical need for comprehensive training, which is best achieved by supplying personnel with simulation instruments.
For example, workers in nuclear power plants and research facilities need to constantly monitor their exposure to potentially harmful radiation. Thermo Scientific manufactures Electronic Personal Dosimeters that monitor exposure to ionising radiation in real time and emit both audible and visual alarms so that personnel can react quickly when an acceptable dose rate level is exceeded. To enable safe and efficient training in the use of these devices, it is now possible to buy the EPD-Mk2-SIM, a training simulator for the Thermo Scientific EPD-Mk2 dosimeter that totally replicates the user interface of the detector. All standard and customer menus and settings are retained – users can copy and use batch files from real EPD-Mk2 dosimeters. Simulated dose history can also be downloaded and analysed using Thermo’s Easy EPD. A major advantage of simulators such as this is that they respond to safe electronic, liquid and powder simulant sources, removing the need to utilise real radioactive sources or materials with obvious benefits for employee safety.
Specialists have now been training to enhance safety in the nuclear industry for well over 50 years. Although Chernobyl is arguably the most well-known nuclear accident, it was not the first of its kind. On December 12, 1952, the NRX reactor at Chalk River Laboratories near Ontario, Canada suffered a partial meltdown and damage to its core, resulting from a series of operator errors and a defect in the reactor’s shut-off mechanism. The incident did not claim any victims or casualties, but its impact was severe enough to be classed at INES International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) Level 5. After the accident, a major clean-up operation took place, involving hundreds of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) personnel as well as Canadian and American military troops. The facility housed one of the most significant research reactors in the world for its time and the accident was a major influence on subsequent international practice in industry safety and design. American Admiral Hyman Rickover, nicknamed ‘the Father of the nuclear Navy’ in his country, took advantage of the clean-up operation to provide a training ground for his troops. The NRX incident lays the foundations of several fundamental principles that are still used today, such as the need to have a balance between thorough safety coverage and simplicity that doesn’t interfere with operations and the importance of written and regularly and thoroughly reviewed procedures that are put in place for day-to-day operations and experimental activity. Today, advanced simulation technology has brought dosimeters, spectrometers, survey and contamination meters to provide individual or integrated instrument training in nuclear power stations so that the workforce can be even better prepared for day to day operations. These radiation simulation systems enable affordable development of training processes whilst delivering auditable and incontrovertible recording for internal monitoring procedures and external inspection regimes alike.
The use of radiological instruments in the civil nuclear sector extends beyond day-to-day dosimetry and personal protection issues to nuclear emergency response. A wide range of simulation systems are now available which can be integrated to stage highly realistic scenarios without the use of real radioactive sources and their associated expense. As a result, many of the obligatory training requirements in civil nuclear facilities can be carried out at a significantly enhanced level of safety.
Historically, response training has involved trainees carrying real detection instruments, searching for small “training sources” and even, in the case of training for nuclear emergencies, responding to hand-written signs showing the level of radiation present at a given location. These methods have, of course, been useful in training responders to deal with nuclear and radiological threats but compared to the options available today, they are severely limited. For example, using real detectors in training temporarily takes equipment out of service. Worse still, it poses the risk of it being damaged and decommissioned for a far longer time while it is repaired, recalibrated or replaced. There are also personal risks to trainees and instructors during exercises that involve the use of hazardous substances, since even small quantities of such materials can pose a real health hazard. The regulatory and financial burden associated with using live sources for training is also significant. As for using hand-written signs as indicators of the presence of radiation, this is of little benefit since it does not allow trainees to develop any understanding of how to handle and use detection instruments or how to interpret the readings they provide.
To establish better practice, Magnox, the management and operations contractor for ten UK nuclear power sites and one hydroelectric plant, has recently enhanced its training capability with a number of innovative radiation meter simulators. Under contract from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Magnox runs the electricity-generating Wylfa and Maentwrof sites, manages refuelling at Chapelcross, Oldbury and Sizewell A and is undertaking decommissioning of Hunterston A, Berkeley, Bradwell, Dungeness A, Hinkley Point A and Trawsfynydd sites. Therefore, ensuring staff at all sites receive appropriate safety training is essential.
The new order supplements previous equipment purchased to enhance essential safety training for Magnox employees, comprising simulators that exactly replicate original dosimeters. For example, the RDS-200-SIM is a realistic copy of the Mirion RDS200, a Gamma Survey meter. In addition to the RDS-200-SIM, Magnox also uses the RADSIM GMP-11-SIM, a contamination training simulation probe that connects to either the real Mirion RDS200 or the Argon RDS-200-SIM, and the EPD-Mk2-SIM, a training simulator for the Thermo Scientific EPD-Mk2 dosimeter. As mentioned above, real radiation meters only read real radiation sources, so traditional exercises have often featured trainers holding up boards with meter readings written on them and asking the students to react accordingly. However, because the new simulators can be used with benign substances, they enhance workforce training by allowing real life scenarios to be enacted.
Magnox chose to use simulators because the technology employed in their equipment produces realistic simulations of both contamination and radiation which makes training more stimulating. Simulation instruments are used for hands-on training of personnel in a purpose built training facility. Using these instruments, Magnox can teach staff and contractors the methods and techniques required to minimise their radiation doses and reduce their chances of contamination from radioactive materials. Using simulation equipment brings an enhanced level of realism to any exercise that keeps the trainees interested and receptive to the training.
Keeping trainees receptive at all times is key to the success of any good training exercise. Progress towards a better quality of training begins with the use of electronic detector simulators that look, feel and function exactly like the real detectors and respond to safe electronic sources; however, these tools are even more effective when integrated with a series of further measures. For example, realism in the scenario is vital; if the participants sense that the exercise in which they are taking part is not realistic they will soon switch off – especially those who have been on many similar training exercises before. Exercises are also more effective when instructors take the opportunity to spring surprises on trainees to keep them alert. Highly effective exercises have been launched while senior members of the team who were being trained were still delivering their briefings. It is common for a trainee listening to a briefing to be somewhat less than alert as they are fully aware that they are taking part in a training session – rather like an employee in an office who is responding to a scheduled fire drill. However, when trainees are surprised they are suddenly no longer in ‘exercise mode’ but ‘alert mode’. Participants who have been involved in training sessions of this kind have found that exercises of several hours seem to be over in minutes because they are concentrating so hard. By using techniques such as this the benefits of using electronic detector simulators are further enhanced.
With the search for sustainable energy sources high on the UK political agenda, the nuclear industry is being seen by some as the answer to local and global energy issues. However, safety is a major concern, not least for the public. As a result, ensuring preparedness in the case of a nuclear emergency is paramount in reassuring the public at large. When safety reports reveal that nuclear facilities do not have the level of capability required to respond to emergencies effectively, risking delays in responding to an emergency, this highlights the stark need for thorough training of staff. Effective preparation and training is key to maximising safety in the event of a nuclear incident. The good news is that the frequency and quality of training is rising and is being increasingly supported with the use of innovative technology. Preparing for nuclear incidents will always be challenging but the availability of radioactive simulation tools ensures that the detection and subsequent response to a real life disaster will take place as quickly, efficiently and safely as possible. Radiation simulation systems that not only enable affordable, effective development of training processes but also deliver auditable recording for internal monitoring procedures may even help encourage a more positive attitude to nuclear power.
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