Technological development depends on many factors, with accidents often being a major driver of progress. In the UK, the 1957 Windscale fire (in which one of the plutonium production piles ignited and burned for several hours*) led to the passing of the country’s first Nuclear Installations Act and the establishing of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) 40 years ago.

To mark the occasion the NII organised an anniversary conference on 24 November which looked to the past at how safety regulation developed and to the future at the directions it may take. Presentations from public interest groups, representing local, national and media views, also put forward other perspectives of events and the actions taken by the inspectorate.

The chief inspector, Laurence Williams, and his deputies began the day by touring the beginnings of safety regulation in the UK to show how it evolved, and then peered forward to the issues that may dominate its work into the next century.

Created in the wake of the Windscale fire, the NII was initially set up to oversee the civilian power production side of the industry. This meant, Williams noted, that the complex at Windscale and other UK Atomic Energy Authority sites were excluded from the provisions of the legislation. So in the 1960s the NII was mainly occupied with regulating the construction and operation of the first generation Magnox reactors.

Fuel processing activities were brought under the Act in 1970, when the production and reprocessing activities of the UKAEA were put together to form British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL).† According to Williams, the early 1970s also saw another key event which has shaped the modern regulatory system: the NII stopped the construction of reactors at Hartlepool because one of the inspectors was not happy about the design of the pod boilers (steam generators) of this advanced gas-cooled reactor (AGR). The redesign and modifications took nearly 18 months and was very costly for the national utility, the Central Electricity Generating Board.

Faced by a more proactive regulator than it had been used to, the CEGB was particularly concerned about the prospect of inspectors demanding changes at advanced stages of construction; this led to the birth of the pre-construction preliminary safety report.

The scope of NII activities expanded in the 1980s when faced with proposals to build major new facilities, including BNFL’s Thorp (Thermal oxide reprocessing plant) and a PWR at Sizewell B. In particular, the NII undertook a generic PWR review to determine if a US designed reactor could meet British regulations which were developed for gas-cooled reactor technology. Developing from this was the publication of a series of safety assessment principles (SAPs) which serve as a basis for assessing what the inspectorate would be looking for in an acceptable safety case of new nuclear power stations.

The proposed Sizewell B project also led to another significant development for the inspectorate. During the public inquiry into the project, the Inquiry Inspector went further than expected by undertaking to fully scrutinise the role and working of the NII.

“The requirement to explain what we did and why we did it considerably moved forward the development of our regulatory decision making process. This was especially true for the safety assessment principles and the development of the Tolerability of Risk philosophy,” said Williams.

The regulator’s role was significantly enlarged in 1987 when the UK government contracted out the operation of the Royal naval dockyards, including the refuelling of the nuclear submarines which was brought under NII jurisdiction.

In the 1990s the NII’s portfolio was further widened when the government removed first the UKAEA’s exemption from licensing and then, in 1997, that of the atomic weapons plants at Aldermaston and Burghfield. According to Williams, no other nuclear regulator in the world has this span of regulatory responsibility.

ASSESSING CHALLENGES NII deputy chief inspectors, John Cowley and Dick Pape, looked more closely at the impact of specific issues on the evolution of licensing in the UK, including: regulating an ageing population of reactors; privatisation and deregulation of the electricity market; and the pressure to squeeze margins with power upratings, higher burn-ups, mixed cores, longer periods between outages etc. They also looked at pressures for greater openness.

In 1980, for example, it became clear that the Magnox operators were intending to operate their plants well beyond their expected safe working life of 20-25 years. The periodic safety review (PSR) was developed particularly to identify and assess ageing mechanisms and to determine what was needed to ensure the plants’ further safe operation. This has generally led to significant improvements to the safety of these plants. The first plant to have a PSR, Bradwell (in 1987), will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2002.

The safety implications of privatisation and deregulation requires careful consideration. Cowley posed a fundamental question: “does the licensee’s staff have sufficient knowledge to understand and own the safety case for the plant?” Pape described how the NII is devising ways to interact with new licensees positively to avoid the risk that a licensee becomes dependent on it, rather than retain the initiative and drive itself.

Responding to the trend to downsizing and increased use of contractors even for safety related work, the NII is paying particular attention to management at its licensees, undertaking audits and inspections when necessary. In addition, the licence condition LC36 was introduced to control the management of change (see panel below).

The commercial drive to optimise resources, Pape says, “is not automatically considered as a problem. Greater sharpness of business focus may well improve safety and reliability as well as output and economics, since these are all aspects of effective management.” Pape also noted that the key safety issues are now widely perceived to include human factors, safety culture, organisation and management for safety, as well as the bedrock of technical excellence. He believes that what is necessary is a combination of good technology plus good organisation, reinforced and underpinned by a strong safety culture.

OPENNESS & TRANSPARENCY The NII must also be aware of society’s concerns “and involved with them”, said Pape. The need for greater public openness is now widely accepted. The expected passing of freedom of information legislation in 2000 will have implications for regulators.

However, Lorraine Mann of SAND (Scotland against nuclear dumping) is not so sure. She says her experience is that the inevitable exemptions will continue to protect public servants who may use it to hide behind. Amazed at being asked to speak in this forum, Mann asked if this new openness is a ‘blip’, or will it last? In her talk, she also explained the critical role she and other intervenors can play to assist the NII in its job. For example, keeping an eye on the ball, looking at issues from a different perspective, providing an independent ear.

She noted that workers will whistleblow to her group, when they will not to the NII. At Dounreay, workers have been heard in pubs to say that some safety procedures and administration put into effect by management and the regulators “are rubbish”. She believes that they are getting mixed messages from BNFL which must be avoided.

The value of openness towards the media was endorsed by both a leading broadcast journalist and a manager from the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston.

When the contract was give to a civilian consortium to manage Aldermaston, explained John Crofts, they found a site with many environmental concerns – contaminated areas around the site that needed cleaning up – and a public credibility problem. He said that the job of cleaning up could not be hidden and that meant they had to talk about what they were doing.

He appreciated how difficult it has been for the people to shift from a perspective that said “you don’t, won’t or can’t understand” to one that says “your opinions are valid”. But it has happened.

In developing good relationships with the public and media, Crofts said he has learned many other things, including: do not say anything you do not believe yourself (“the press will see right through you”); be totally honest (“I would only say it if I could verify it myself”); “embarrassment is not a security clearance issue”; and “no more no comment.” Lawrence McGinty, an experienced science broadcaster, agreed with this, pointing out that “openness is not only ethical, it also pays.” Over the past decade, the number of “nuclear” stories his news service had covered had gone down from 6-700 hundred a year to around 130. He said that this was a result of the industry no longer refusing to respond to questions. In the past, allegations made by opponents that were not answered, or received a “no comment”, became a legitimate story. When responding openly to questioning, even if a full answer could not be given, the story would often weaken to the point that it would not be reported.

INTO THE FUTURE Backend issues, eg waste disposal, decommissioning and plutonium, as well as the pressure to reach ‘close to zero’ effluent release will dominate future concerns.

Pape pointed out that nearly half of the country’s nuclear sites (shown on the map) have substantial decommissioning activity underway. Strategies and techniques in this complex field are evolving rapidly. But there are a number of organisation issues of particular concern, eg corporate memory, long-term maintenance of nuclear safety competence, and financing for liability, and some important legal issues, such as free release of materials and land, that still need clarifying.

The inspectorate is now giving much higher priority to historic legacies which have accumulated, particularly at Sellafield and Dounreay. Pape said that licensees can expect their choices to be challenged, by the regulator and the public. NII is already discussing BNFL strategies with a wide range of stakeholders, including environmental groups, local government and other regulators.

Decommissioning is pushing the NII to develop new ways of regulation. “The traditional carrots and sticks no longer have effect,” says Jim Furness; “witholding a start up consent is hardly effective once a licensee has lowered control rods into a reactor for the final time. New ways have to be found to make things happen during the decommissioning phase… [we must ask] not only is it safe now, but are the right mechanisms in place to ensure it will remain safe – 5, 10, 20 years and more into the future.” The development of a strong safety culture also requires constant effort. “There is an inherent difficulty for a regulator in applying rules to encourage the best in human performance and discourage the worst.” The regulator must encourage the licensee to develop staff who “know”, who “think” and, most importantly, who “care”.

Finally, as regards the near near future, noted Furness, “assuming the we have survived the Y2k disruptions, it will be business as usual in the new millennium.”