International regulators and experts on nuclear power plant safety converged in Salt Lake City last week to discuss nuclear power and design. Representatives from 37 countries came to discuss increased safety expectations following last year’s meltdown in Japan after the earthquake. The International Conference on Nuclear Power Plant Life Management began 10 years ago in Budapest, when industry professionals and governments began asking how to continue to operate nuclear plants around the world safely and economically. 2012 is the third time the international forum was held, and the focus has changed some. Conference Chairman Gary Young says the idea is to tackle issues like managing aging plants and material degradation.
“Any research and development on improved methods for operating the plants, methods for improving the safety, and of course since Fukashima the focus has been on how to deal with beyond design basis events such as earthquakes and tsunami’s and extremes of weather."
Young says the U.S. has 104 nuclear power plants, and ten of those are more than 40 years old. He notes the nuclear power industry is a relatively new, going back only about 50 years, but says he’s seen a maturing of the industry over the last 10 years. He says in the past, plants were only operating about 50 percent of the time because of operational and maintenance issues. Now, he says plants can typically operate at 80 to 90 percent.
“That’s why we’re looking at what are the effects of aging, what are the lessons learned from the countries that have operated for long periods of time, especially the countries that have a large fleet of nuclear plants like the U.S.A and like France.”
Before Fukushima, Young says scientists were focused on what could go wrong inside the plant, whereas now they’re looking at what can go wrong outside, like severe weather. He says advancements have been made to ensure the plants can safely be shut down, even if all surrounding infrastructure has been destroyed. Ki-sig Kang works for the International Atomic Energy Agency. He says countries like Germany that have sworn off the extension of nuclear plant life have the luxury of doing so.
“In the case of Europe they can import electricity from other countries. But some countries like South Korea or China, they have a really isolated country there they cannot import electricity from other countries. In the case of Germany this is more of a political and social reason.”
Kang says with a good management system, good technology and a culture of safety, nuclear power plants are very secure. But how can anyone be sure nuclear power plants across the world are operating under comparable regulations? Brian Holian, Director of License Renewal with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that’s what the International Atomic Energy Agency is for.
“They have safety standards that they put out that each of the countries are supposed to maintain, that minimum safety standards. That’s their primary goal. So they’ll have missions, they call it to the different countries to gage how well you’re following their safety standards.”
The other way, he says to keep power plants in the world safe is to gather at conferences like these where officials, scientists and regulators across the globe can learn from one another. The conference ran through Thursday at the Hilton Salt Lake City Center. For more information on the conference and what was discussed, you can visit the website, at International Atomic Energy Agency.