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Safe nuclear power in the energy mix?

13 September 2022

In addition to the numerous challenges it poses to countries all over the world, the current energy crisis has triggered a serious debate on nuclear energy, especially in Europe.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

(Click here to view article in digital edition)

The COVID-19 pandemic saw a historic worldwide decrease in energy consumption and prices in 2020, due to lockdowns, factory shutdowns, travel restrictions and a huge reduction in international trade, among other factors. While renewable energy output was largely unaffected, demand fell for all other sources of energy, including oil, gas, coal and nuclear power.

The progressive end of lockdowns, shutdowns and assorted restrictions throughout 2021 has completely reversed the situation, resulting in a serious energy crisis at the end of the year. The price of crude oil, gasoline, natural gas, and even coal have exploded, creating discontent in the population and government interventions to minimise the effects of steep inflation.

Developing or shutting down nuclear plants?

Part of the problem for some countries – Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Switzerland – is their decision to shut down their nuclear plants. In Germany for instance, where the decision to switch off reactors was made in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power will be completely eradicated by the end of 2022. To compensate, the country has developed its renewable energy sector, increasing the number of wind turbines in activity, on and offshore, and also reactivated some of its coal power plants.

Other European countries – Finland, France, Hungary, Slovakia and the UK – keep on adding new reactors, while others – the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania – want to add nuclear plants to their energy mix.

Nuclear safety culture

For many years, the nuclear industry has had its champions and adversaries. Dangerous for many, clean for others. Obviously, there are huge risks associated with the technology. The sector has been heavily regulated both at the national and the international level. The International Atomic Energy (IAEA), based in Vienna, Austria, was established in 1957 “in response to the deep fears and expectations generated by the discoveries and diverse uses of nuclear technology”.

While regulations and safety are the responsibility of the countries that possess nuclear facilities, the IAEA’s role is to help its member states “meet this responsibility by establishing international safety standards and providing for their application in all types of nuclear installations (power reactors, research reactors and fuel cycle facilities) throughout their total life cycle – from design through decommission”.

The IAEA developed the concept of nuclear safety culture in the 1990s. It is defined as “the core values and behaviours resulting from a collective commitment by leaders and individuals to emphasise safety over competing goals, to ensure protection of people and the environment. For the commercial nuclear power industry, nuclear safety remains the overriding priority”.

Countries have developed their own regulations in the field. At the international level, the IEC and ISO have both established technical committees (TCs) that deal with the standardisation of various aspects pertaining to nuclear installations.

Over the years, IEC TC 45: Nuclear instrumentation, and its subcommittees as well as ISO/TC 85: Nuclear energy, nuclear technologies, and radiological protection, have developed numerous international standards and maintained liaisons with the IAEA.

Quality management

The issue of quality management is as pertinent to the nuclear industry as it is relevant for any other industry sector. Whether building, maintaining or refurbishing a nuclear facility, it is essential that all pieces of equipment and devices that are part of the installation come from suppliers with impeccable credentials. Both suppliers and purchasers must trust one another and must know anything that is used, from basic nuts and bolts to the state-of-the-art control equipment, is genuine, of the highest quality and will minimise risks as much as possible.

To that effect, ISO published an international standard in 2018: ISO 19443, Quality management systems - Specific requirements for the application of ISO 9001:2015 by organisations in the supply chain of the nuclear energy sector supplying products and services important to nuclear safety (ITNS).

The standard applies the principles of ISO 9001, Quality management systems – Requirements, to the nuclear sector, combining best practice in quality with the specific requirements of the nuclear industry. ISO 9001 is one of the standards in the ISO 9000 family on quality management.

To comply, raw material suppliers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) – basically the whole supply chain – need to meet the requirements of ISO 19443.

Making sure the standard is applied

The need for organisations to maintain specifications accepted by their customers when supplying component parts and services that are important to nuclear safety (ITNS) is evident. ISO 19443 sets out the management system framework as a tool to be used to monitor and control the supply chain.

Having such a standard is one thing. But how to make sure products and services destined for the nuclear sector are indeed designed and produced according to its specifications? That's where conformity assessment intervenes, more specifically IECQ, the IEC Quality Assessment System for Electronic Components.

The IECQ approved process (AP) scheme provides for the independent assessment and issuing of an international IECQ certificate of conformity for organisations that have demonstrated compliance with declared standards and/or specifications, for example IEC 61340-5-1 for the management of electrostatic discharge (ESD).

With the growing need for organisations to provide independent proof of compliance with ISO 19443 as organisations supplying products and services to the nuclear energy sector, member countries of the IECQ System have agreed to integrate ISO 19443 into their internationally standardised process certification scheme.

The certification process includes ongoing audits over a three-year period, at the end of which the process has to be reinitiated for a further three years and so on.

Certification to ISO 19443 also helps identify any counterfeit, fraudulent and suspect items that may be uncovered within the supply chain and will allow companies to quickly eliminate them.

With the global nature of the nuclear industry supply chain, all stakeholders will benefit from a single global approach to the assessment and certification of organisations to ISO 19443.

About the author:

This article originally appeared on e-tech, an online platform published by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), covering news on IEC standardisation and conformity assessment activities. The article is re-published here with permission.

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