Playing the game is no game

30 July 2001

Following the incidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, there has been a significant growth in exercises to evaluate the effectiveness of nuclear accident emergency programmes.

Following on from the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, many countries have intensified their efforts in nuclear accident emergency planning, preparedness and management.

The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) started the International Nuclear Emergency Exercise (INEX) programme with the table top exercise INEX 1. This involved 16 participating countries to examine how well they responded. The INEX 2 series of exercises were then developed and organised to test national level responses based on a simulated emergency at an existing nuclear power plant. INEX 2 had three main objectives:

•A real-time exchange of information.

•Public information.

•Decision-making based on limited information and uncertain plant conditions.

The first INEX 2 exercise took place in Switzerland. The second INEX 2 regional exercise took place in Finland. The third took place in Hungary and the fourth in Canada.

Detailed objectives

Real time exchange of information using each participant’s actual communication hardware, software and procedures is essential to gain a realistic impression of the effectiveness of the communication system. With regard to public information, these had not been examined during INEX 1, and many participants felt that the exercise was not very realistic as a consequence. As a result, INEX 2 included public information components such as press releases, public briefings, media interactions and pressures, co-ordination of public information, and so on. Activities included:

•Providing information to the public on what action to take – or not to take – based on the recommendations of responsible government officials.

•The questioning of various public officials and utility representatives by the media, at least by telephone, regarding the situation, actions taken or expected to be taken, and the reasons for not taking certain actions.

•Conducting one or more press briefings in which media representatives have the opportunity to ask government officials and utility respresentatives questions.

•Providing information feedback to the players in the form of simulated news reports or radio programmes based on the information collected by the media simulators.

However, as reported on p5-6 of the June 2001 issue of NEI, there is a risk that such media report simulations become reported as factual, rather than as a simulation, in the global media. This happened at an exercise carried out in respect of a simulated accident at Gravelines, in France. The details of the simulated accident were reported in the German media, in the belief that the event being described was real. The German environment ministry, which had initially released the misinterpreted report, issued a second statement that said: “The aim of the exercise was to test the effective communication between the states and international organisations and the national emergency protection regimes.” The exercise demonstrated very effectively the importance of communications with the media.

In order to exercise the decision-making process in each participating country, the pre-release and immediate post-release phases of an accident are simulated in INEX 2. The use of realistic data exercises particpants, programmes and procedures for making decisions based on limited data, that is, plant condition data, which is often limited in scope and certainly pre-dates any information as to the scale and duration of a release. In addition, the decision-making process immediately post-release is exercised, thus providing information on a programme’s ability to adjust to quickly changing situatons. Similarly, real weather conditions are used.

The Finnish experience

The Finnish regional INEX 2 exercise assumed a general loss of main power in all the Nordic countries. The scenario assumed that Loviisa 2 suffered an outage, and that an airplane crash on a nearby road causedpower loss in high voltage lines. A malfunction resulted in Loviisa’s on-site diesels failing to supply the electricity required to run the reactor cooling pumps. In addition, the reactor control rods could not be moved. This resulted in an anticipated transient without scram.

Two hours after this, there was a malfunction of the containment ice condenser, followed by a loss of in-core instrumentation an hour later. This was followed by core damage and pressurisation of containment over the next two hours. Radioactivity was released into the atmosphere over a three hour period that started nearly five hours into the scenario. The radioactivity released from the core and from the stack into the environment is given in the table.

Until the termination of the exercise, 11 hours from the start, there had been assumed high hydrogen concentrations in the containment, acting as a potential threat of a hydrogen explosion followed by fire in the containment.

Accident host experiences

The Finnish operators were able to test the timing and content of communication methods used around the world as news of the accident unfolded. They could monitor the feedback from international organisations and other countries on the information provided, and digest the information received in the accident country on the response and protective measures taken by its neighbours.

Real weather was used to inform the domestic and international media. This was well received by the participating organisations, as it proved useful for testing existing arrangements and should be used in future exercises.

It emerged that having a group responsible for international communications was essential. In addition to written information, liaison personnel for telephone contacts improved the communication with the IAEA, EC, bilateral agreement countries, and INES coordinators. The exercise demonstrated that clarity in identifying the time and source of information was important. This helped reduce the problems caused by sending multiple messages to receivers of information. It also helps if the origin and reference time was clearly stated when information was passed on.

It was felt that it would be useful to standardise the international format of emergency messages to clarify information flow and reduce the possibility of confusion. In the early phase of an accident, most of the information comes from the accident country. In the later phases, measurement data is also likely to come from both neighbouring and distant countries. This would be made far easier if common methods of presenting information are adopted.

Real media interest and participation in international exercises should be encouraged. There was a great deal of local and national media interest in this exercise, but it was difficult to simulate international pressure on local response organisations for information.

Border country experiences

Border countries (Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Norway, Russia and Sweden) found the experience realistic, interesting and useful. These countries received much more extensive information flow than in previous exercises. In addition, information was also submitted at a lower threshold than prescribed by the IAEA, and this proved to be very useful.

Due to the extensive flow of information, border countries found that they had major difficulties in effective communications, especially in the field of data and information exchange. In addition to handling a lot of information, the situation deteriorated as the same information kept arriving from several different inputs. Handling these communications therefore required a lot of resources, especially where national communications should also be provided. Communication procedures and protocols need to be improved.

The exercise showed that information that was exchanged through bilateral agreements moved faster than it did when moving through the IAEA in accordance with the international convention. While international communication systems remain this slow, bilateral agreements are to be preferred.

Decison-making in border countries was mainly based on official communications from the accident country and national assessments made on this basis. The exercise proved that the border countries did not harmonise their decisions, but made them independently. This resulted in different recommendations given at different times in different countries. The recommendations should be better coordinated.

Distant country experiences

In general, distant countries found the exercise to be useful. Some countries took advantage of the exercise to test their own national emergency programmes. This focus of the exercise in distant countries was mainly to test the communication of information and public information activities.

It was clear that even in distant countries, the demand for information was very high. This means that the communication network used for this purpose needs to be capable of serving many countries with sufficient information. Most distant countries reported some difficulties with the speed and quality of fax transmissions, and suggested that an e-mail or Internet-based system would be preferable for communication.

With the exception of recommendations for tourism and transport industries, the scenario did not force decision making activities for distant countries due to the relatively small release of radioactive material and the limited period of time for the exercise. It was, however, recognised that decisions differed from country to country.

Lessons of the exercise

Real time exchange of information

This was an important objective in the exercise, especially in connection with the inclusion and participation of bordering and distant countries. The demand for information from bordering countries is different from the demand for information in a distant country where only very minor consequences are expected. However, in a real accident, the information demand from distant countries should not be underestimated. Although distant countries are often not directly affected, they often have responsibilities to protect their nationals in affected countries, as well as economic interests in terms of trade.

Therefore, all countries, whether they are bordering or distant, request all the necessary information to enable them to make their own assessments relative to their own problems.

INEX 2 gave the following experiences:

•It is important that information about the accident is provided in a timely manner to all interested countries.

•In the INEX 2 exercise, the information was disseminated by the Finnish authorities, the main Finish power company, and the fictitious news agency created for the exercise, the IAEA, WHO, WMO and EC. Detailed information flowed freely from Finland through these different information channels. The quickest channel was generally through the fictitious international news agency created for the exercise. Nonetheless, there were still some problems, most notably with duplication and triplication of messages as they are sent through different channels. As there are different contact points receiving information, there is a need for coordination of information flow between different national contact points.

•Fax is reliable but slow. For graphical information, fax proved to be – as expected – a poor means of communication. The readability of graphical results became poorer and poorer as they passed through yet another copier or fax machine, and quickly ended up illegible. E-mail was used as a supplement in INEX-2. This proved to be useful, but it was felt that more experience is required before it can be adequately judged.

•During INEX 2, international information exchange was initiated well below the stated criteria defined by the IAEA. Most countries appreciated this greatly. There seems to be a serious discrepancy between the countries’ needs and desires for early notification and the IAEA criteria.

•Bilateral agreements proved to be an important basis for rapid information exchange.

•The role and responsibilities of international organisations givijng advice on radiation protection issues have to be clarified.

•It is important to develop an internationally agreed upon key data management for the different time phases of an accident and for different accident regions. This key data management should clearly indicate who submits what kind of information, to whom, and at what time. The information should be provided in a predefined format.

Plant conditions

In emergency situations, every country is expected to make decisions on protective actions (or non-actions) for their populations.

The INEX 2 exercise provided a scenario in which direct and immediate countermeasures were only subject to considerations in a few countries. All other participating countries followed the development of the accident, considering advice on travel and trade.

The following decisions were taken:

•To alert internationally at an early stage in the development of the accident. The Finnish criteria for making such an alert are considerably lower than required by the IAEA. This was greatly appreciated by the participating countries.

•To take countermeasures on the basis of plant status. In the exercise, during and after the release, some actions were also decided upon according to the assessment of monitoring results and model calculation.

•As the accident country provided extensive, near-real-time information to authorities in other countries, these were able to understand the situation in Finland and to use the information for their own assessments. The flow of information was much better during this exercise than in previous exercises and real accidents.

•In some of Finland’s down-wind neighbouring countries, countermeasures were planned and initiated according to national assessments of information from Finland.

•All countries – even distant countries – decided at a very early stage of the accident to inform the press and the public about the nuclear accident. A few countries advised people during the first stage of the accident not to travel to Finland, but most countries did not recommend any restrictions. Such contradictory messages could very easily result in general public confusion.

•During the exercise, the WHO issued information that was misinterpreted by some countries as a recommendation for the implementation of iodine prophylaxis. It should be clearly noted that only the appropriate national authorities of each country should be responsible for decisions on countermeasures.

Lessons learnt

Information to the public was given on three levels:

•The Finnish authorities sent out early notifications to the IAEA for further distribution, and they arranged press conferences reported by the INEX News Agency.

•National authorities held their own press conferences, sent out press releases, or had journalists represented in the emergency management organisation.

•In many countries, “media cells” comprising professional journalists, journalist students, or people with media experience were set up to distribute news to their respective publics.

There were some systematic differences between the participating countries. Obviously the need for information grows as the geographical distance to the accident site reduces. But it also emerged that people in countries with nuclear power generally have a better understanding of the basics of nuclear energy. In countries without nuclear power, a significant part of the population expressed anxiety about the invisible danger.

Very often, the media informs the public much faster than the official channels. This could be because the media has a lower threshold of communication, a better communication network, and often communicates before verification. Time delays can often cause problems between authorities and the media, and affect the credibility of the authorities in the eyes of the public.

A clear language barrier emerged. In the case of a nuclear accident, even distant countries want to have immediate information in a widely used language such as English. However, national emergency planning is, in general, based on national language, resulting in a time delay between the publication of original information in the accident country’s language and the distribution of the translated information.

Country-to-country diferences also appeared according to the perceived credibility of executive authorities, especially the reliability and impartiality of the spokesmen involved.


Participants in the INEX 2 series of exercises made a number of recommendations:

•Modern electronic methods of communication should be favoured over faxing as the primary method of information exchange.

•The expanded use of computer communication networks should be fully tested, and such systems should become more frequetlyused for emergency communications, using faxes as back-up.

•There are a number of problems that need to be solved using a network, such as information structures, data formats, network safety and security.

•Actual national emergency contact points should be used during accident emergency exercises. This offers a meaningful test of notification procedures and serves to reduce the confusion associated with special arrangements made only for exercises.

•National procedures for receiving emergency notifications should be clearly established, understood and exercised in order to internally communicate this information as rapidly as possible. The media should not be the first source of accident information, especially in the case of an accident in a neighbouring country.

•A better strategy for international information flow should be developed. Developing notification and information exchange conventions, which are more complementary and less redundant, would reduce the burden on national emergency response organisations, as well as the flow of redundant information.

•The EC should reconsider its procedural and technical means of information transmission to enhance and provide additional means for overall information dissemination capabilities.

•All messages should clearly show the identification of the sender, the destination, the time for which the data is relevant, and the time it is sent.

Decision-making recommendations

To optimise decision making, relevant information should be made available as correctly and in as timely a manner as possible. The participants recommended the development of international agreements on information exchange and the establlishment of an international communication system to ensure that the national decision makers in all countries have the same set of updated information on which to base their decisions.

It is also the case that there is a big difference between having protocols in place for an emergency, and knowing and understanding how they operate in practice. The only way to test how protocols and staff perform is to carry out as realistic a simulation as possible. The pressures and stresses of an incident can produce errors, and it is only under stressful situations that it is easy to tell which protocols induce extra pressure by unforeseen conflicts elsewhere. Simulations are also good training for staff.

Table 1: Releases from core and stack into the environment

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