After Fukushima, Belgium tested its utilities
Willy De Roovere joined the FANC-AFCN in 2006 as General Director, after a short passage at Belgonucleaire and some 30 years at Electrabel, including an 11 years assignment as the general site manager of the Doel NPP.
Could you describe your academic background and professional path ?
Willy De Roovere – I graduated in 1969 from the University of Ghent as a civil engineer. After the military service, I started working in Schelle for EBES, an electricity producing company which had classical electricity (coal, gas, fuel) production units. I’ve then worked more than 30 years at Electrabel. I’ve participated in the first phase of the Doel-1 and Doel-2 nuclear plants. Atfer an assignment at Kallo which had oil and gas power plants, I returned to Doel and participated in the construction and startup phases of Doel-3 where I was responsible for mechanical maintenance and afterwards for operations. Later on I became the general manager of the Schelle power plant. My next position was assistant to the general site manager of Doel before becoming myself the general site manager of Doel for 11 years, from 1989 until 2000. I have then worked at the head office of Electrabel where I looked after production assets. From 2003 to 2006, I’ve worked at Belgonucléaire, a fuel-fabricating company in Dessel making MOX-fuel elements, which got in the process of getting phased out by Areva following the application of the Loi Renault. After those three years, I was hired by FANC-AFCN in 2006, at the age of 60.
As former director of the Doel NPP, did you perceive a difference between working in the private sector and working at a state agency (FANC-AFCN) ?
WR – Working at FANC-AFCN (state agency) brings much more interface with the political world. What you want is not necessary what they are prepared to push forward. There is not necessary the same political view (from a minister, a government or a parliament) on what is needed. The main difficulty is that nuclear is a long-term business and that politics is rather fostering short-term issues because politicians will have to think about the next elections. Since the political world is more complex, new legislation as proposed by FANC-AFCN can be subjected to long waiting times. Regarding a particular item, our proposition for royal decree or law can be on top of the dossiers being handled, on the backside or will eventually have to wait for a later decision. A private company has only one specific end-objective which is always somehow linked to the profit concept or the business outcome and positive end-results.
In order to get this result, you have to start from safe plants and through this get the chance to build an economic case. There are more objectives at FANC-AFCN and the risk is that those objectives could change over time, i.e., with changing governments. The only way of resolving this problem is to have a quite independent agency that is not too much managed by the politics. Also there is no economic or profit objective. A private company puts mainly its priorities on the high risks it could be involved in. At FANC-AFCN all risks, even the smallest ones need to be addressed because otherwise parliamentary questions will push you to do something about those smaller risk items. Perception that people might have is also an element to be considered by the FANC-AFCN.
You started the reorganization of the FANC-AFCN in 2006. From your point what is the biggest improvement made since then, and what is the biggest challenge for the FANC-AFCN in the future ?
WR – In the past, the management aspect of running the FANC (which became operational in 2001) was not a priority item. This meant that people were working in small groups as best as they could. There were thus several interfaces inside the FANC. The system had to be changed. We went from a process-oriented approach to a more client-oriented approach. The advantage is that the FANC-AFCN appears in front of a client as a single group, and not as a sum of several groups or individuals anymore. The client has now one interface to handle and not as many different interfaces like in the past (regulations, authorizations and controls). It is now often a one-to-one relationship. This discussion started in 2006 when the word “client” was a word not to be used and the position of people inside the FANC was something like “we are the authority and we know what is right”. Now, relations are much more open and friendly, listening to the clients.
There are open discussions like round-tables where people can express what their concerns are. The FANC-AFCN is convinced that it can come to good results whenever it takes that into account. In the past, the FANC was organized mainly to control the biggest nuclear installations (mainly NPP’s and installations alike), where there was a risk to impact a lot of people at the same time during an accident. Medical doses were less focused upon. Now, the medical sector has been put at the same attention level as the large nuclear installations, giving it its own life and approaches. It was also a necessity because you can never convince people about the use of nuclear just by saying how well the power stations are operating. People are more interested in the medical applications because its part of their daily life. To impact the reputation you have to find such points to improve the perception.
A structured approach which works on bigger installations can however not directly be applied to the medical sector where you have to get the information, and convince people to become more transparent and to try to get better all the time regarding the doses administered. FANC is nowadays working hard with the medical sector so that they share information on almost all events, even the minor ones. The global solution from power stations to dentists is to adapt your approaches to your public. This was not necessarily the case in the past. You also have to show that you are a strong regulator. The AFCN-FANC is now much more respected by the public and the politicians. It is also much more accepted as an independent organization.
After the Fukushima event, what will be the most significant improvements carried in Doel/Tihange ?
WR – After the Fukushima event, we are looking again at the Belgian nuclear power plants but also at other nuclear installations to see whether their design conditions are good enough (with respect to earthquakes, robustness, etc). The question is now : “is enough really enough ?”. Design was made sometimes 30 or 40 years ago, when the conditions were quite different from now. Thinking about the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, we will now have a lot of conditions for new plants and also for the existing plants related to the required robustness against terrorist attacks. After the Fukushima event, we try to add extra protections not taking into account probabilities anymore. Initial design was mainly linked to probabilities. If the probability of an occurrence was low, then nothing was required about protecting against that. Nowadays, after the Fukushima event or the Twin Towers attack, the philosophy has changed. We assume a probability equal to one, we focus on what could happen to the plant and see whether we will be able to sustain cooling and avoid a big problem impacting people and the environment. Fukushima is once again a review of the existing or adapted design conditions. Will the outcome be good enough ? In the end, it will be a political decision.
The FANC-AFCN can have an opinion about the results of the analysis but representatives of the democratic system we have in place, i.e. the parliament, have to estimate whether the remaining risk is acceptable or not to the population. The FANC, as an agency, shows a picture of the situation from a technical point of view and enumerates requirements to be as safe as possible. The so called Stress test will suggest engineered improvements which are sometimes not as evident as imagined at first. As an example, to build an additional 2 meters tick wall around the reactor to decrease the impact of an aircraft crash is structurally impossible because the existing foundations will never be able to support it. Placing more obstacles around the plant and avoiding a direct hit turns out to clearly be a better solution. Fukushima was a consequence of electricity grid and cooling losses.
As a result, the purpose of the Stress Tests is not to look at the damages done at a nuclear power station by an aircraft crash but is more focused on the effect of such events (natural or man-made) on the internal electricity grid or cooling systems. In other terms, the purpose is to keep cooling systems operational even if the reactor building has been significantly damaged. The Stress Tests report was given by the operators to the FANC-AFCN on 28st of October and the agency will comment and make the report definitive on December 31st of this year. There will finally be a Peer Review process at the European level during the first four months of 2012.