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Avoiding The Next Fukushima: France Studies Nuclear Safety

France, which gets the vast majority of its electricity from nuclear power, is looking hard at safety at its 59 plants after the disaster at the Fukushima reactors in Japan. At the EDF energy giant, this world leader in atomic energy tries to show it is a

Avoiding The Next Fukushima: France Studies Nuclear Safety
Jean-Claude Lewandowski

BUGEY - Through a window, the movements of the five men are hard to interpret. Pacing across the room below, they exchange a few words, consult large files, maneuver buttons. Behind them is an enormous panel with lights and dials. The resemblance to pictures of the control room of the Fukushima plant's No 3 reactor is striking.

Housed in a sort of bunker next to a functioning nuclear plant, this room is the hub of a training center of French energy giant EDF in the eastern town of Bugey, l'Ain. It is an exact copy of the real control room of reactor No 2, and operators come here for training at least once a year. Energy safety experts have long studied France, which is among the world's leaders in nuclear power, counting on its 59 plants to supply nearly 80 percent of the country's electricity. France is also the world's largest net exporter of electricity.

In Bugey, behind tinted windows, two instructors can be seen changing parameters, provoking incidents, and watching how their trainees react. Later, there will be a debriefing session using audio and video footage. "Security is of course the absolute priority. It's at the base of all our organization – from the design of the plants to their maintenance and staff training", says Michel Rollinger, director of Ufpi, the organization that trains EDF's technicians, whether in nuclear, hydraulic, thermal or other energy sectors.

Among Ufpi's 770 employees are 580 coaches who together provide three million hours of practical training a year, on an annual budget of 110 million euros. Each plant is equipped with a simulator and dedicated training rooms. At Bugey, where Ufpi is headquartered, there is a whole campus, with training material for those who work outside the control room as well: on ventilation, chemistry, or automated systems.

Marianne Laigneau, the group's human resources director, says about 15,000 new recruits are expected in the next five years, all of whom require training. All new employees start with a 14-week course on the framework of the "Académie des métiers du nucléaire," covering the basics of working in a nuclear zone, such as security rules, radioprotection and proper behavior.

There is a further "professionalization" course, of varying length: two months for a valve-worker up to two years for an operator. The trainee's progress is monitored at each step.

In the classroom and on-site, teaching methods are diverse, with mentoring, "serious games', videos and e-learning. Above all the aim is to put the trainee in test situations that expose them not just to real equipment, but also the working atmosphere and secure communications. Whole areas are dedicated to diesel motors, ball-bearings and other engines. Valve systems, for example, take up four classrooms and a vast warehouse, bringing together hundreds of models of valves and taps of all sizes that are used in the plants.

At the training plant in Bugey, which can simulate over 1000 types of breakdown, there is a miniature plant with steam generator, turbine, alternator, and mini-simulators enabling trainees to zoom in on a particular phenomenon.

"Simulation allows us to see an accelerated version of a large number of events, or little problems," explains 30-year old operator Vincent Savoye. "You're in real life, but without the stress, because you're never alone."

"The aim is for each colleague to be able to build a mental picture of all ongoing phenomena: circuits, fuel, temperature", explains Michel Rollinger.

EDF is now multiplying its crisis exercises on all its nuclear sites, with around 10 internal emergency plans organized each year. Each plant must carry out its own intervention plan every three years.

Learning from others' experience is another key education principal. "Each incident, each event, in France or abroad, is examined extremely closely and becomes the object of a reference document," says the Ufpi boss. "What are the causes? What can we learn from it? And we adapt the training as a consequence. It's a major source of progress."

In this way, EDF made a number of findings from the accident at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, notably on crisis management in the control room. No doubt the group will learn more from the catastrophe in Japan.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Gilles Francois

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