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COMMENTARY: Belarus to welcome number of IAEA review missions before nuclear power plant goes online

Stronger international cooperation in the area of nuclear safety and nuclear power engineering was high on the agenda of the 61st session of the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna on 17-22 September. The General Conference is held every year and allows all the IAEA member states to work together to discuss matters concerning routine work, the budget and priorities of the agency. This year’s session gathered about 2,500 people, including delegates from 157 out of the 168 IAEA member states, including Belarus, representatives of international organizations, mass media, and non-governmental organizations. In the course of the session the IAEA HQ traditionally offers venues for a large-scale exhibition. In 2017 it was the third time Belarus had presented its stand.

Atom for peace and prosperity

The IAEA has been the key international forum for scientific and technical cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear technologies for over 60 years already. The 61st session of the General Conference reaffirmed safety as a top priority in nuclear energy uses and the readiness to promptly respond to requests of the member states. By the way, more and more countries join the organization. Grenada’s application for IAEA membership was approved by General Conference delegates last week.

Belarus has repeatedly underlined the need to adhere to principles of safe uses of nuclear technologies. Belarusian Deputy Energy Minister Mikhail Mikhadyuk, who led the Belarusian delegation during the 61st session of the IAEA General Conference, mentioned nuclear safety as an unconditional priority and underlined the need to follow the highest possible standards throughout the lifecycle of a nuclear power plant from design and construction to decommissioning. He mentioned the IAEA’s key role in developing and promoting nuclear safety standards because the IAEA is a platform for sharing the best practices and puts vigorous efforts into stepping up interaction between the member states.

Promoting nuclear technologies into areas where people feel their usefulness such as power engineering, healthcare or agriculture and making the technologies accessible should become a recognizable brand of the IAEA, stated the official.

Yukiya Amano’s reelection as the IAEA director general was one of the top events during the 61st session of the IAEA General Conference. The Japanese diplomat has been the IAEA head since 2009. A historical agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was signed during his time in office. A joint comprehensive action plan was agreed by Tehran and the 5+1 group (five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the USA, Russia, China, the UK, France — and Germany). The action plan was adopted in Vienna in 2015. The commitments Iran has undertaken as part of the comprehensive action plan are being honored, Yukiya Amano told participants of the 61st session.

With Yukiya Amano’s reelection as the IAEA director general the agency will continue supporting the countries, which are intent on developing a nuclear energy industry of their own or expanding the existing programs. This interaction is particularly important for countries, which have just joined the nuclear club such as Belarus, which is building a nuclear power plant. Mikhail Mikhadyuk briefed Yukiya Amano on the progress in the Belarusian nuclear power plant construction and invited Yukiya Amano to visit Belarus. The IAEA head reaffirmed the agency’s commitment to assist Belarus with its nuclear power plant construction project.

Expert’s view on safety

Arranging review missions for an impartial evaluation of nuclear projects without political bias is one of the key forms of the IAEA’s cooperation with various countries as they build and operate nuclear power plants. Belarus has already welcomed a number of missions and intends to stick to the recommendations of the experts, Mikhail Mikhadyuk told BelTA. He reminded that Belarus welcomed an Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) mission in 2012. “As a result of that mission we compiled a national action plan taking into account proposals and recommendations of the experts. At the same time the mission mentioned a number of positive practices, which were recommended for adoption for other newbie countries,” noted the official.

Belarus welcomed the IAEA’s Site and External Events Design (SEED) mission in January 2017. The IAEA experts were supposed to determine whether all the safety aspects concerning the Belarusian nuclear power plant had been properly taken care of in line with the IAEA’s standards in this field. The mission experts concluded that the Belarusian government had duly taken into account all the external threats while choosing the construction site and designing the nuclear power plant near Ostrovets, including external impacts. Apart from that, all the necessary measures were taken to safeguard the nuclear power plant against external impacts in view of the lessons taught by the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident. Nuclear safety is a responsibility of the state. By inviting that mission, the country’s government demonstrated its dedication to follow the IAEA safety norms in implementing the national nuclear energy program, noted IAEA representatives as they summed up results of the mission’s work in Belarus.

Mikhail Mikhadyuk said that before the first power-generating unit of the Belarusian nuclear power plant goes online in December 2019, Belarus intends to welcome a number of IAEA missions. In March 2018 Belarus will welcome an Emergency Preparedness Review Service (EPREV) mission. In line with the IAEA recommendations before that a nationwide exercise will be held in Belarus to practice responding to radiation accidents. IAEA representatives have been invited to attend it as observers. Preparations are in progress for an operational safety review (pre-OSART) mission and an Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR – Phase III) mission. Details of preparations for the forthcoming IAEA missions were discussed on the sidelines of the 61st session of the IAEA General Conference with the IAEA deputy directors general Mikhail Chudakov and Juan Carlos Lentijo. “Belarus is building a nuclear power plant in a transparent and open manner, continuing interaction with the international community. We highly appreciate the IAEA’s assistance with implementing the nuclear energy program,” stressed Mikhail Mikhadyuk.

Stress resilience test

Belarus will finish compiling the national report on results of stress testing its nuclear power plant within days. The stress tests took place in late 2016. After that the Nuclear and Radiation Safety Department of the Belarusian Emergencies Ministry (Gosatomnadzor) started compiling the report. The safe operation of the nuclear power plant in the face of extreme external impacts was evaluated. Consequences of natural phenomena were forecasted such as combinations of floods, extreme weather conditions and external impacts, consequences of the nuclear power plant’s losing safety functions due to the loss of external power. Managing a major accident was also evaluated. The general conclusions will have to specify the measures that have been implemented to increase the reliability of the nuclear power plant, problems with safety and possible measures meant to improve the nuclear power plant’s safety in the future.

Since the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011, stress tests have been arranged for all nuclear power plants regardless of whether the nuclear power plants already operate or are still being built. Lessons learned from the Fukushima accident are now part of the IAEA’s nuclear safety requirements. They will become part of the global safety practice, Yukiya Amano reminded during the 61st session of the IAEA General Assembly.

Belarus stress-tested its nuclear power plant using European methods and taking into account recommendations based on the European Commission’s and the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group’s (ENSREG) specifications. The European Commission will provide an independent evaluation of the stress tests of the Ostrovets nuclear power plant after a peer review, which details the Belarusian delegation discussed with the European Commission’s Deputy Director General for Energy Thomas Gerassimos in Vienna. The national report will be forwarded to the European Commission in October. The timeline and details of the forthcoming evaluation have been agreed already, explained Mikhail Mikhadyuk.

A comprehensive analysis of the nuclear power plant taking into account post-Fukushima safety requirements will be part of the efforts to evaluate the nuclear power plant’s safety when the license to operate it needs to be issued. Documents for getting the license are already being sent to Gosatomnadzor. They will be checked for about one year. Public hearings will be arranged right before the license is supposed to be issued. European countries, which already operate nuclear power plants of their own, will share their experience of arranging such public hearings.