How to Prepare for Something that Rarely Happens, like a Nuclear Incident?

By Mr. Thorsten Hackl, Advisor Incident Response, Central and West Brabant Fire Department, The Netherlands

This is the difficult question to answer when looking at the risks of certain rare incidents. Especially if the risk is low but the impact huge. I am talking about nuclear disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl. It is obvious that every nation with a nuclear facility wants to prevent any kind of incidents at those facilities. It is also obvious that all organizations involved in nuclear safety need to prepare for those incidents. The big question is, how much preparation is enough?

I usually start my lectures on nuclear safety with the following theorem: “You will fail handling a nuclear incident”. I do this for two reasons. First, I want to lower the expectations: if you don’t gain experience (which you do not want in case of a nuclear incident) you will probably make a lot of mistakes. In a way, I want to prepare people for disappointments and setbacks during an incident like Fukushima. The second reason is that I want them to focus on resilience and not waste too much time on thinking about all scenarios and on trying to prepare for all expected events. It is most likely the unexpected events that they will have to respond to. Therefore, by preparing people to be resilient, you make them better prepared and able to adapt quicker, thus benefiting the outcome of the mitigation. And this comes with a bonus. There are high chances that a lot of us will reach retirement without experiencing a nuclear incident. However, the improvement of the resilience capacity will improve the general incident management capabilities which is very good.

But when are you done preparing?

That is a tricky question and here is where you can turn to the IAEA to help you prepare.

“Amongst the wide array of services, the IAEA has to offer, the service that can help a Member State to prepare emergency and response is called EPREV. EPREV stands for Emergency Preparedness and Response Review. This is a service provided by the IAEA to Member States on their request to appraise their level of preparedness for nuclear or radiological emergencies” (IAEA.org, 2020).

“Through the IAEA’s Emergency Preparedness Review (EPREV) service, experts conduct peer reviews of Host State arrangements and capabilities to respond to nuclear and radiological emergencies, regardless of the cause, against the IAEA safety standards on emergency preparedness and response (EPR). IAEA Safety Standards Series No. GSR Part 7, Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency (2015), requires Member States to “include periodic and independent appraisals, including participation in international appraisals”, as part of their quality management program for EPR. Such appraisals go along with training, drills and exercises, to ensure that Member States have sustainable EPR capabilities in place.

EPREV is the only peer review or advisory service to comprehensively address national EPR arrangements for nuclear or radiological emergencies. Other IAEA services focus on more specific elements such as regulatory infrastructure, on-site EPR arrangements and interfaces with relevant stakeholders. The EPREV peer review service is designed to facilitate maximum interaction between experts in the review team and experts in the Host State. The missions are designed to be flexible and scalable to meet the needs of the Host State. The reports are intended to be used by the Host State in the development or revision of its EPR arrangements and for sharing best practices among Member States. As one of the peer review and advisory services offered by the IAEA, EPREV has been developed to have an approach and terminology consistent with other services, where applicable, and to minimize the costs to host a mission. The service is managed in such a way to reduce overlap with other peer review and advisory services. EPREV allows for a peer review across all levels of government and response organizations in the Host State, including the government, regulatory body, response organizations and operating organizations. The emphasis of the EPREV service is on ensuring compatibility of arrangements among all response organizations, based on the nuclear or radiological hazards identified in the State. These guidelines are being published in the IAEA Services Series for the first time, presenting 19 years of experience in conducting EPREV missions. The guidelines were compiled based on a number of consultancy meetings and inputs from Member States and experts who have served on previous EPREV missions.

The IAEA has conducted Emergency Preparedness Review (EPREV) missions since 1999 in order to provide an independent peer review of arrangements for preparedness for and response to nuclear or radiological emergencies in Member States. Any IAEA Member State may request an EPREV mission to be conducted to review its emergency arrangements. The EPREV service is performed with the assistance of international experts who are selected on the basis of their knowledge and experience in the field and their familiarity with other, similar reviews. The peer review provides the Host State with recommendations and suggestions that are intended to enhance its emergency preparedness and response (EPR) capabilities and arrangements. It also highlights good practices that can be used by other Member States to improve their own EPR arrangements” (INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY, Emergency Preparedness Review (EPREV) Guidelines, Services Series No. 36, IAEA, Vienna (2018)).

In 2016 I was asked for the first time to be part of an EPREV team. First of all, I always feel honored when being asked to be part of an international team of experts. Passed that first feeling, I started preparing. The host country provides the team members with a lot of advanced reading material to prepare the mission. Even before that the host state will do a self-assessment on the current EPR status. With the support of the provided documents, the preparation can start. First, each team member will provide the other team members with a first impression report on the self-assessment and reading package. Next, the team members will divide the tasks amongst themselves. This way each member can prepare in detail what need to be assessed. During this time, the IAEA and the host state will prepare a mission agenda and all the necessary arrangements for a successful mission.

Once the mission starts, it is hard work. The EPREV team doesn’t count its hours and the weekends are usually also used to work on the report. Of course, there is always some leisure time, but the focus is on the report, that will be presented at the end of an EPREV mission. These missions usually take about two weeks and this means hard work for both IAEA EPREV team and the host state. Overall the agenda is full. During the day there are meetings and interviews, and in the evening the minutes of the meetings are turned into a report with the findings.

In one of my missions, I had to visit the local hospital and take a look at the preparations it had on decontaminating victims. What was shown was really impressive to see. We also welcomed the willingness of the hospital staff to demonstrate the process of handling contaminated people which were injured. I was also asked to visit the local fire department, which is even more interesting for me, as firefighters are my colleagues. I was indeed able to relate to their challenges in this complex field of nuclear safety. It is always nice to see how other colleagues work around the world. And where at first, I saw a lot of differences, over time I started noticing the similarities.

What I like most about being part of an EPREV team, is the collaboration with peers form around the world. As I mentioned before, there is not a lot of real experience when it comes to nuclear safety, so networking with peers from around the world can be very valuable. This way you can share good practices and lessons. This also goes for the interviews that are conducted in the host state. I always see a lot of similarities with my own country and I usually take with me a lot of valuable contacts and lessons that I can use to improve the nuclear safety at home. And although I am usually quite exhausted after going on mission, I find it very rewarding in the end.

For me it is great to be part of something that improves the nuclear safety around the world.

To take a deeper look at some of the EPREV reports that have been made available by member states, please refer to the following website: https://www.iaea.org/services/review-missions/calendar

Mr. Hackl has specialized in HazMat incident management since 1999 and he was the team leader of the first Emergency Preparedness and Response Mission in Fukushima, Japan. During the course of his career he has trained over 1000 first responders in HazMat and nuclear protection.