From profession to professor

2 July 2010

After working in the UK nuclear regulator for 29 years, Laurence Williams has become the UK’s first professor of nuclear safety at the University of Central Lancashire. The post reflects today’s appreciation of safety in the nuclear industry, values that Williams himself has helped instill over his career. Back when he started, it was a different story, he tells Will Dalrymple.

Laurence Williams: I joined the nuclear industry in 1970 as a young design engineer for Nuclear Power Group, a design vendor organisation providing AGRs and steam-generating, water-cooled reactors and high-temperature gas reactors. I spent 18 months working on designs on HTGRs and others. Safety wasn’t mentioned as a specific topic.

Laurence Williams
Laurence Williams

Then I went to get my masters, and came back to the Central Electricity and Gas Board supporting nuclear power. One heard about safety committees, but I had no specialist training in what the regulatory system was, why it was there, what safety systems were.

I joined the nuclear regulator because I felt that by the late 1970s, if it was to have a future, it needs to be safe. I never regretted that. I started as an inspector on fast breeder reactors, then the Sizewell B PWR, then the fuel cycle, and eventually I went into nuclear policy. In 1998 I was the chief nuclear inspector, with a delegated responsibility for licensees and all nuclear installations, which I did for seven years, and then I went to help set up the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency...

Now there is clearly a global recognition of the importance of nuclear safety and security. I remember being chairman of the committee of safety standards in Vienna. The first suite of nuclear standards produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s were the lowest common denominator. When I left in 2005, I had been working on a new architecture for standards, a new approach. Now they aim to be best practice, globally-recognised safety requirements in reactor safety, fuel cycle, decommissioning, transport, radwaste management... The challenge was how to ensure high standards that are now delivered are maintained in a world where there is a much larger nuclear energy programme. The small part I play now is helping develop scientists and engineers of the future, giving a better understanding of safety, and integrating it into nuclear engineering and design. There is a really great opportunity to potentially influence the future....

Q. Based on your experience, what are the most significant gaps in awareness about nuclear safety in the UK industry?

There is still a message to get across to the wider community about what nuclear safety is. It is important because the industry is changing so much, especially because there have been so many years of stagnation and lack of recruitment, and an aging population. Now there is an uptake in nuclear interest, and one of the biggest challenges is that you don’t lose the knowledge that went into the design and operation of our nuclear installations as people retire. We need to maintain an understanding of the importance of safety and the relationship between nuclear safety and nuclear security. We are getting a more integrated approach between these two communities.

Q. When you say security, what do you mean? Are you referring to nonproliferation?

Security around nuclear installations is partly about nonproliferation. We spend a lot of time developing nuclear safety standards and culture, and there is a growing recognition of the importance of how different components support the delivery of nuclear safety targets, and through organisations like WANO [World Association of Nuclear Operators], the nuclear safety culture is advanced.

The nuclear security community operates in a different world; they do not want to publish those standards, because it would defeat the object. But they are making more guidance public. We need to give a total safety package, primarily to ensure that we don‘t make security – physical protection, or other means of preventing theft or sabotage – adversely affect safety. There should be integrated thinking. For example, you might want to put a fence in, but by putting a fence in, it could trap people. If you need to get people out quickly, you do not want a fence that cannot open outward...

Q. Are the two main parts of nuclear safety preventing a catastrophe, on one hand, and reducing exposure on the other?

It is not quite as simple as that. What is nuclear safety all about? Maintaining control over nuclear processes at the centre of the core. All it does is generate heat that can be converted into electricity through a steam cycle. Every activity that could affect our control over that process affects nuclear safety: hardware, software, people, organisational structure. These elements need to be integrated into a safety management process that builds in additional defences so that if one component fails, another will detect that, and protect against it, and protect the system against the ultimate loss of control of radioactivity. It costs money to do that. Worker safety is important too; you have to demonstrate that you keep radiation risks as low as reasonably possible. But the big thing in nuclear safety is keeping the core under control, or in reprocessing, keeping the nuclear material that is in containment under control.

Q. What is safety culture?

Look at INSAG 4 or 15 from the IAEA. It is people’s recognition and understanding of the role they play in maintaining the safety of the plant, and the role their colleagues play. If you don’t understand the contribution you are making to deliver the goals of the plant safely, you may not do something because you didn’t understand its importance. [Safety culture is] about doing it right the first time, and the importance of following processes and procedures, because they are written for a purpose. It is about working with colleagues, and helping them out...But there have been books written on how to get those messages across, on how an organisation can be measured on the state of its safety understanding....

Q. What effect did privatisation have on you as a regulator?

During the privatisation and restructuring of the industry in the mid-1990s with British Energy, we had procedures in place to satisfy ourselves that a new organisation that was taking control was fit and proper to hold a nuclear site licence. We added [the new] licence condition 36 at the end of the 1990s to reflect that there was such a lot of change that we needed to make sure it was done in a controlled way. The licensee needed, before making such changes, to have thought about what the safety implications might be, and demonstrate that they could make them without adversely affecting safety...An example could be that a utility might have a technically-competent group of people to underpin some of their operations by providing calculations. And they may think, ‘we will get this service provided by someone else’; they would buy the service in and make that staff redundant. Things like that, taken a bit at a time, could drastically change the competence of the organisation and its ability to be the controlling mind of its operations....

Q. Should nuclear safety standards be as high in developing countries such as India or China?

Yes. That is the transition. Those early IAEA standards in the late 1970s were regarded as standards for the developing world. The major companies said, we needn’t bother, we have our own. Now, if we truly are going to have a global nuclear energy, to create confidence among the global public, we need to be working to the same standards. [Since then] we have developed high-quality standards in a set framework to judge the designs of reactors, and have organised a framework there to provide assurance that the industry operates safely. I don’t see how we could live with dual standards. Radiation knows no boundaries. It is a challenge for the world to get together to raise standards, and to help countries that are struggling them to develop technologies that develop safety.

Q. Outside of operating plants, where are the most nuclear safety issues, in the front end or in decommissioning?

You need to recognise that there are two parts of decommissioning: decommissioning of reactors and decommissioning of the legacy industry. In the US and the UK, in Russia, there are lots of problems related to the early weapons programmes, and how they were dealt with. So there are the legacy issues and decommissioning reactors. In terms of decommissioning reactors, there are no particular engineering challenges; once you remove the fuel, most of the hazard has gone. The rest of the material can be decommissioned with normal radiation protection. The big challenges are from the legacy sites, and radwaste management, and provision of a repository. In the UK waste is conditioned so it is passively safe pending disposal, and once there is a disposal site, management of radwaste is simpler. The challenge is to demonstrate that disposal is safe now and for future generations and the environment. That is not an impossible task. There are engineering solutions, they just have to be developed and articulated properly.

Q. Have we today reached the limits of nuclear safety?

We understand nuclear safety; we understand what contribution it has to the safe use of nuclear energy. The challenge as we develop new materials is that we can always get better; that doesn’t mean to say that the level of risk is unacceptable. It is not...The big challenge is maintaining focus, and not getting complacent.

Q. How do you do that?

Through education, training and I think dialogue, sharing experiences; this is why global organisations are so important. It just needs eternal vigilance. It is for a society to judge whether [nuclear power] is a benefit. If society values nuclear-generated electricity, it will ensure that it develops.

Q. Why have a university professorship in nuclear safety? University courses are for teaching and basic science research, aren’t they? Isn’t nuclear education more suited to postgraduate research?

They can be. There is an opportunity within a university environment, especially with postgraduate degrees, to give people an opportunity to get an understanding of how fundamentally nuclear safety affects the nuclear industry, and an opportunity in the future to explore how safety and security interrelate...[Nuclear safety] is not a bolt-on, it should be within their thinking when working in engineering, design, fuel cycle chemistry; they should understand what the world expects of them in nuclear safety and security context...

Q. Did you learn much about the nuclear industry at university? I have heard that some nuclear engineering students had no training in practical matters until they joined the industry.

In the late 50s and early 60s, the field of nuclear engineering was new....In the UK, and other countries, because development was related to the military, there were huge atomic energy research institutes, military and civilian, which we don’t have now. Now, universities have the infrastructure for the future. There is no more UKAEA, which once had five or six research labs, 10 reactors, 30,000 people, or CEGB, with research facilities and thousands of engineers, or BNFL, with its research in the fuel cycle. They have all gone; it is a different world than the 1960s.

Q. Do we need new research reactors?

Some people would say that simulators are so advanced now that you can do everything with simulators. I’m old-fashioned, and remember working on a research reactor in 1972, and there is nothing like operating one yourself, and measuring the neutron beams, or whatever. But it is not absolutely essential. It is nice to have. There is a difference that you do need material testing reactors, and reactors for isotope production...We are becoming a more stable, mature industry where we are going towards one type of reactor that is becoming a very reliable kilowatt-hour factory. The challenge for the future, for advanced reactors 20-25 years from now, when it becomes apparent, is that there will need to be test reactors built for those.

Laurence Williams Laurence Williams

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