In Quotes: WANO's Ingemar Engkvist on how nuclear industry helps each other

08 December 2022

In a wide-ranging interview for the World Nuclear News podcast, World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) CEO Ingemar Engkvist:

  • Explained how its members share ideas and tips with each other
  • Discusses the impact of events in Ukraine
  • Outlines WANO's new Action for Excellence initiative
  • Predicts a bright future for the nuclear sector

    Ingemar Engkvist has been WANO CEO for three years (Image: WANO) Here is an edited transcript of parts of the World Nuclear News podcast, which you can also listen to via the embedded player below or on any podcast players.

    How was World Association of Nuclear Operators founded?

    It's really important to emphasise that WANO is a member organisation. That means all commercial operators of nuclear power are members. We have about 430 reactors as members because each reactor is a member, and all over the world, so it's really a global organisation. It was established in 1989 after the Chernobyl accident, when the industry realised it couldn't afford to have any stations around the world operating in isolation. At the time, there was basically no oversight from the international community on the Soviet Union stations. I'm not saying that led to the accident, but I think the industry realised we need to work together to prevent another accident.



    What is the main role of WANO?

    WANO was established in 1989 and one of the core, first, pillars of WANO was to exchange experiences. We do that openly within the organisation which is quite unique. We share events that have happened at the plants. It could be component failures, things that happen in every industry. We collect that in a database and it's open for all members to read and understand and try to avoid similar things happening. That was the core when WANO was established. Later we also introduced peer reviews. And that is pulling together an international team to go to the station, some 15 or 20 people going for two or three weeks, reviewing all aspects of safety at the station and leave the station with a report of what we believe are gaps to excellence or gaps to excellent global standards, with recommendations for the plant and what to work on in the coming years. This is not an inspection, because we are not interested in compliance with national regulations, we measure the standards to best practises in the industry. So we leave the station with a recommendation, a number of recommendations, what to work with, and then we follow up all these recommendations to ensure that there is an effective action plan in place for the station to improve safety and performance. The WANO mission is only to maximise safety and performance of the stations. We are not an advocate for nuclear, for instance, and we only work for our members and usually we have a very low public profile because we usually just operate between members and the WANO offices around the world. We have regional offices in Atlanta, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo and London, which is more a coordination office and we have a branch office in Shanghai which was established just recently.

    On the need for confidentiality

    I know people sometimes questioned why everything is so confidential within the organisation. The reason is we want to maintain the openness by the operating plants to discuss their own weaknesses without this becoming public in the country they operate, or having interference from regulators ... we don't measure or check compliance, we measure to the best practises and the gap, but that is not always understood. So we don't have a public profile very much. But there are occasions where we actually believe it is beneficial for our mission to maximise safety that we also are a bit public, such as when I participated in COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh.

    What is the new Action for Excellence initiative? 

    There was a request from the members that WANO should change its operating model, to be more effective supporting stations which has led to an initiative called Action for Excellence - it should be emphasised that this is not a WANO initiative, this is an industry initiative to more effectively address the gap to excellence - not to compliance - but to excellence. So we have been working intensely with this, designing this for two years and we now are in the implementation phase. What it really comes down to is a much closer interaction between WANO and the individual members. We will monitor performance much closer. I spoke about peer reviews, which we do. We did those every four years. We usually had a follow up after two years, but we have realised that is not frequent enough, to understand whether the plant’s action plans are really effective. So we will have more data analytics, we will have more or less quarterly feedback to our members on their journey to excellence and where they need to focus. So it's about performance monitoring, but it's also more effective support ... we can also do what we call recovery if the station has struggled for a long time with addressing a specific problem - we reach out to all the membership to say, 'is there someone who has experience in addressing this and that has been effective, or that was not effective?', so it's not being repeated. So both successes and failures are important.

    What has been the impact of the war in Ukraine?

    It's a very difficult situation and we are deeply concerned about the conditions Zaporizhzhia is operating in. It is really essential that we stay above geopolitics as an organisation and I’ve worked very hard with maintaining the unity within WANO, not taking any sides in the conflict and focusing on our mission to maximise safety, to help our members ensure safety of the plant. And of course, for the plants in Ukraine this is very, very difficult right now, and particularly the station Zaporizhzhia which has been in a battle zone for quite a while. We have limited possibilities to go on site, it is practically impossible right now. This is what I think about every day before I go to sleep: is there anything we can do for mitigating the risks they are exposed to in Ukraine right now? One way of dealing with this has been to establish very close cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. (IAEA) and close contacts with the Director General Rafael Grossi. Not on a day-to-day basis, but we are available for each other 24/7 and exchange, sometimes, text messages in the middle of the night when we think about something. And we are really supporting the ideas of a protection zone around Zaporizhzhia. This is very difficult to achieve and WANO doesn't have the possibilities to negotiate with nations. That's what IAEA has. So we rely on their effort. We also are engaged through Energoatom, the Ukrainian operator, a member of our Paris centre and there have been missions completed on behalf of Energoatom, support missions although they are being done mostly virtually as we haven't been able to travel to Ukraine right now. But we are in close contact with that operator and understanding the situation because it's not only about Zaporizhzhia - they're operating other power plants in Ukraine and the situation for them is also difficult. But also the Ukrainian regulator has close contact with the IAEA and we try to coordinate our efforts to support them. I also have contacts with Rosenergoatom our Russian member which is involved in this as well. And I would say we have a climate that we can actually discuss difficult things. We are not pointing fingers anywhere. We are more focused on 'is there anything we can do?' So I have regular contacts with both our Ukrainian member as well as our Russian member. There was a global WANO meeting we had in Prague some weeks ago and there was a resolution from the WANO board that the members of WANO requested WANO to become more actively engaged in the situation in Zaporizhzhia. And I'm trying to work out what possibilities do we have to support them.

    What do you see as the outlook for the nuclear sector?

    The outlook is different from 10 years ago. We spoke about the nuclear renaissance before 2011. I used to work for a German-Swedish utility and was part of managing the Swedish German nuclear fleet. We were about to sign contracts with suppliers for lifetime extensions of the German units - that changed overnight after Fukushima. So the nuclear renaissance stopped, but I now see a new renaissance of nuclear. But the discussion is completely different than it used to be, when it was more about being a business opportunity. Now, I think there is a growing understanding about how important nuclear technology is to reducing carbon emissions. And if we really want to stick to the agreement to be carbon neutral by 2050, I see no option but to use nuclear technology. In the past we spoke about large-scale nuclear reactors. Now there are many concepts of more modular, smaller reactors which would be easier to deploy, which would be potentially cheaper, potentially using them as a heat source for conventional coal-fired plants. There is a greater interest in doing this as countries need to reduce their carbon emissions by 2030, which is only seven years away. But yes, then that's one part - technology drives a new future for nuclear.

    New generation, new attitudes to nuclear

    I also think this is a generation issue. In my country, Sweden, we had a referendum in 1980 and the outcome was to phase out nuclear by 2010. That didn't happen, but many of those who took part in that referendum still have their beliefs from the 1980s. But there's a new generation coming and I think the new generation is focusing on what we need to achieve rather than the emotional perception of nuclear. So as long as we can operate plants safely with high reliability the younger generation sees this as an important tool for addressing the emissions of carbon and reducing the emissions of carbon. So I think it's definitely changed and we see a tremendously growing interest in investing in nuclear.

    On the need for longer political visions

    I will also say that in some countries, the political system hasn't changed as rapidly as the public. There is sometimes in some countries a gap between the the public perception of this and the political perception. And for making this transition to phasing out carbon sources, we need stability and energy policies that last more than a mandate period of four years. We need, the industry needs, at least a horizon of 20 years, so I would wish nations would have the courage to decide on energy policies which become independent of elections every four years, because that's still the financial risk for investors. And the political risk is still too significant. From a technical point of view I think we are more or less ready to contribute to this transition. It takes investment capital and I think we need political acceptance and we also need, of course, public acceptance. That's crucial. That's part of how societies work - without public acceptance, the financial risk is anyway too great and there is no way you can introduce or expand the nuclear sector without public support for it. But the public support is growing, rapidly

    As an industry how well do you think the nuclear sector works together?

    Since WANO was created in 1989 we have collected operating experience from all these plants that have been members. And once you become a member of WANO and pay the membership fee you get free access to all this information, which is quite unique. So in that sense, of course, the industry is very closely related. But yes, operators are competitors in markets, but we know that the biggest risk to this industry is to have a significant safety event. It will affect all operators around the world and that is what unites operators - this understanding of being hostages of each other, more or less. So members are willing to share their best practises for the benefit of maximising safety, because that's key for the future, and it's key for maintaining the momentum in the new nuclear renaissance. It could change overnight if we have a significant event, so, in the aspects of nuclear safety, there is no competition, absolutely no competition, and everything is openly shared and and there is mutual support. One member is willing to send their best experts to another member to address a significant issue because we know the importance of this. So, it's like a family, this industry. When we we meet, not very often, we discuss what has happened, "anything new from your side?", so it's a really beautiful industry to work in. I'm not saying it's completely unique because I know the airline industry also has a good system for sharing experiences, and events on one plane model are reported globally for other operators too to be aware of. But I think that this industry has developed is far beyond what we see in any other sectors.

    What next after CEO term at WANO ends at the end of the year?

    Well, what you cannot expect me to do is sit in the park and feed the ducks. I will do something different and as I said, this is a family and I will stay in touch - I don't know how, I don't know what. But I want to be part of the future. The SMR development, the nuclear renaissance, is just impossible to just withdraw from. I will probably be self-employed and work part time or something. I don't know - I'm still focused on completing things here in WANO and we spoke about the situation in Ukraine, it takes a lot of my time. So I will not sort of gradually phase out. I will work until the last day of December. And then think about what to do in the future. We'll see what the future brings.

    Researched and written by World Nuclear News