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Nuclear Power : the new age of safety

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Created in March 2012, the RESOH industrial chair was set up in order understand the organisations involved in Nuclear facilities, and the specific risks they incur.

Nuclear safety depends not only on procedures and state-of-the-art automation systems, but also on people and organizations. This  inspired the  Ecole des Mines de Nantes establish a research chair in March 2012, to create a whole new dimension to the concept. According to Benoît Journé, Professor of Enterprise Risk Management at Nantes University (MEMNA Laboratory), and responsible for the RESOH research chair (Research in Safety Organization and human factors), we are entering a new age for Nuclear safety. It was originally believed that safety depended only on technical and automated systems, however in 1979 a totally unexpected incident ocurred, the Three Mile Island disaster. It demonstrated that the human element can weaken the system, and this resulted in the increased regulation and monitoring of automated equipment. Then came Tchernobyl in 1986, which showed that these measures were not far reaching enough, because it was not the human element, but rather the organization which was the cause in this case. An irresponsibe order came from the top of the hierarchy, which it was impossible to refuse. It is true that this took place at the end of the Soviet régime, nevertheless there are many lessons to be learnt.

An ecosystem

Risks resulting from organizations require serious consideration, since they are becoming increasingly complex. The first principle of safety established by the IAEA and the ASN (1)  specifies that the operator of a plant has complete responsibility for safely operating a NPP. “But how can one manage risk when there are 2,000 people working at a nuclear plant, hired by several sub-contractors, as well as taking comercial and financial aspects into account ?”, asks Benoît Journé.

In order to answer this question, and to understand the day-to-day running of these organizations, the RESOH chair will set up a project to observe nuclear plant operations.This will involve analyzing the complexity of the organization, the risks involved and the dilution of responsibility. “From now on, safety will stem from  those involved, interacting within an  ecosystem, explains Benoît Journé. I am trying to promote this concept because getting organizations to talk will improve safety.”

This new industrial chair – the fourth created at l’École des Mines de Nantes – has been funded by Areva, DCNS (naval yards) and the IRSN, the Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety. “It took us two years to set up this project,” says Benoît Journé, “because it was challenging for an institute involved in supervision to work with two operators, who were more used to being supervised. But, when you think about it, given all the safety issues involved, we're all in the same boat really.” Some people may think that this initiative is being driven by the nuclear sector lobby, but according to Benoît Journé  this project is more about improving safety than promoting the nuclear industry. He points out that partners will finance an endowment fund at the Ecole rather than a specific chair. “A sponsorship scheme will be set up whereby  the partners will abandon the copyright on any work stemming from research. This will reduce any risks of censorship.”

In the future, the chair could include other partners, even those working in areas not directly linked to the nuclear sector. “This industry compels us to tackle scientific questions which are not unique to the nuclear sector”, remarks Benoît Journé.

(1) Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (French Nuclear Safety Authority).

(2) L’Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire.


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