Interview: Nuclear operators face a bright future

20 March 2020

Leading the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) at a time when respect is growing for nuclear energy as a reliable and low-carbon source of electricity is an exciting prospect, its new CEO and chairman, respectively, Ingemar Engkvist and Tom Mitchell, said in an interview with World Nuclear News. Speaking at the organisation's London headquarters recently, they said their enthusiasm in leading WANO into its fourth decade reflects not only their passion for the industry but also their optimism about its future.

Tom Mitchell (left) and Ingemar Engkvist (right) (Image: WANO)

This optimism is relatively new, said Engkvist, who was director of WANO's Paris Centre and before that the managing director of E.ON Kärnkraft Sverige and OKG AB. He spoke about the difficult decision he had to make to close Oskarshamn 1 and 2 in Sweden, not for technological reasons, but because they were no longer economic to run.

"We ran a very large project from 2005 to extend lifetimes and do power uprates, but by 2015 the market conditions had changed, the tax had been increased, and when we did the financial analysis we found that the station would never be profitable again and so we decided to phase it out." Having to tell the plant's managers this decision is a bitter memory, he said, because they were rightly proud of the facility and its contribution to the country's economy and environment.

Nuclear power as a solution to climate change helped motivate Mitchell's decision to join WANO's leadership. Mitchell was the president and CEO of Ontario Power Generation in Canada where he was responsible for 10 CANDU units and oversaw the completion of several new hydroelectric projects and the transition from coal-fired power generation.

"Nuclear energy technology offers probably the most practical way of addressing the climate change issues," he said. "And so making sure WANO continues to focus on safety and reliability and in doing so promote the continued use and development of this technology, that’s what gets me up in the morning."

Having been plant operators themselves, Engkvist and Mitchell both said that WANO's strength lies in the fact its reviews are confidential because this encourages openness from its members. A relationship based on trust is the greatest assurance of high safety standards, Engkvist said. WANO peer reviews and the International Atomic Energy Agency's OSART (Operational Safety Review Teams) missions are voluntary, he noted, but the former is invited by the plant operator and the latter by the nation's government/regulator.

IAEA issues a statement following completion of an OSART missions, but WANO does not publicly announce its peer reviews. Some WANO members do, however, choose to announce that they have completed a WANO peer review. Mitchell said that this is "something we neither encourage nor discourage, but we have some guidance and practice about that".

Each of WANO's regional centres - Atlanta, Paris, Moscow and Tokyo - organise peer reviews for their respective members but each review team also includes members from another centre. "This approach ensures a fresh perspective and the avoidance of group mentality," Engkvist said. And reviews have the mutual benefit that the team members return to their own plants with examples of good practice they have observed during a review, he added.

WANO's plan to open a branch office in Shanghai, China this summer has been delayed owing to the coronavirus outbreak, but the staff who will work there are being trained in the UK and will also gain experience of working at its regional centres. Eventually, once agreed and voted on by WANO’s membership, the Shanghai branch will become WANO's fifth regional centre to serve its members across Asia. According to World Nuclear Association, there are 33 new units under construction in Asia and as many as 42 are planned in China alone.

WANO recently published its updated Performance Objectives & Criteria (PO&Cs) document as "the gold standard" for nuclear safety operations, Engkvist said, adding that these PO&Cs will be rolled out globally by 1 July. It has also issued a new principles document on Nuclear Leadership Effectiveness Attributes, which was produced by 16 CEO/CNOs from its regional centres. WANO is "technology-neutral", Mitchell said, and as such the document applies to operators of all reactor types. "Leadership speaks about behaviour, not systems and processes, and this document is about the behaviour expected from leaders," he added.

The issue of an aging workforce is not as serious as once thought, Engkvist said. "When we visit stations, sometimes we’re a bit surprised at how young the staff is now that the pioneers of the industry have left. I worked intensively on developing my new staff and at one point there was 40% turnover in a short period, but my experience was that this was not the big problem we’d anticipated it would be. If you put actions in place, with a proper handover, mentoring and training, then I would say the willingness of the young generation to learn and also to present a healthy challenge with questions on how we do things is a good thing."

WANO recently produced a white paper to support new plant operators, titled 'Nuclear Industry New Build/New Entrants', but Engkvist stressed that "the bar of expectations for newcomer countries to nuclear power is set as high as it is for existing plant operators". The guidance in the white paper is in addition to WANO's pre-startup reviews that assess how well prepared a member is to operate a new plant. At an earlier stage, new entrants can also host IAEA Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review missions.

There is direct cooperation between WANO and the IAEA where appropriate, Mitchell said. "Since 2011, there have been 56 reactors brought online and 100 units will have come online within 15-20 years," he said. "That's a huge body of experience we’ve been able to capture and summarise in a joint collaborative effort with the IAEA and other organisations, including the World Nuclear Association."

That cooperation is "kudos to" WANO's previous CEO and chairman - Peter Prozesky and Jacques Régaldo - and "we look forward to future opportunities for such cooperation", he said. It was significant, he added, that WANO had shared a platform with the IAEA and the Electric Power Research Institute during the IAEA's General Conference last year. "Sometimes our work is complementary and sometimes there is cross-over opportunity," Engkvist said, and we have joint publications and working groups that meet twice a year to coordinate the efforts of the IAEA and WANO."

WANO is also preparing the support it will offer operators of small modular reactors. Mitchell said: "We'd like our members to know that if they decide to implement different types of technologies, then we can provide the support necessary. If those technologies require us to look differently at certain areas, because they’re simpler and smaller, then we’ll factor that into our approach.” The future of nuclear power will not be an either/or with largescale reactors and SMRs, he said. "It's not an 'or', it's an 'and' as we talk about the ability to deploy reactors in a range between 5 megawatts and 1500 megawatts, but the choice of deployment will probably depend more on geography and each country’s individual needs."

New technologies develop and energy policies change, but the safe and reliable operation of nuclear power plants now and in the future remains the priority of every WANO member, Engkvist said. Mitchell added: "If we're really going to achieve emissions reductions, and in the timescales we’re talking about, then I would say that - and maybe this is my personal motivation for being in WANO - supporting our members extending the life of their plants, building new units, bringing new technologies online allows nuclear energy to be part of the answer to climate change."