“We seek excellence in the operation of our nuclear power plants”
Alfio Vidal is currently Manager of Nuclear Supervision at Iberdrola Nuclear Generation and also Director of the Cofrentes Nuclear Power Plant in Valencia, Spain, among other management roles. In our interview, this industrial engineer focuses on one of the topics he is most familiar with: nuclear safety.
He indicates that "our plants have highly qualified personnel, in constant training and very commited to the reliability and safety of the sites". Along with the essential work of nuclear workers, he considers that "The Spanish nuclear industry has been able to maintain very high levels of quality and professionality, and this has gained worldwide recognition". In his opinion, " Spanish society is realizing the fundamental role of nuclear power in the energy transition".
Could you summarize your work and every day routine as Manager of Nuclear Supervision in Iberdrola Nuclear Generation?
The Nuclear Supervision Department gives the manager of Iberdrola Nuclear Generation and the rest of the management team independent and objective evaluations of the performance regarding safety, in the broadest sense of the word, of the organizations that own the exploitation authorization of the Iberdrola fleet. These evaluations influence decisions from top management by identifying the areas with room for improvement for performance, work practices and processes affecting safety.
What is your team like, and what are their professional profiles?
The Nuclear Supervision team is composed of six people with broad experience in nuclear safety as well as a strong spirit of cooperation and support to the line in the search for excellence in operation and continuous improvement.
"We work to achieve excellence in the operation of nuclear power plants and continuous improvement"
What are the most relevant aspects to supervise to ensure that safety and operation of nuclear power plants is at the highest and most demanding levels?
One especially relevant goal in Iberdrola is the safety of people and sites. This concept integrates the aspects of nuclear safety, radiological protection, equity and environmental protection, with a special emphasis on the prevention of occupational risks.
Apart from following Iberdrola's corporate policies regarding prevention, health, environment and quality, the Administrative Board of Iberdrola Nuclear Generation has established new specific nuclear guidelines: the nuclear safety guideline and the radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel guideline. Supervising compliance to these guidelines is our fundamental function. For this purpose, we carry out a series of evaluations based on the goals established by WANO (an association that brings together all the world's nuclear operators) in their document Performance Objectives and Criteria. This document, which establishes the highest global standards of excellence in nuclear safety and reliability, has been developed by the world's nuclear industry to be used with all technologies and for any type of organization.
Could you summarize the safety measures of nuclear power plants in Spain?
In Spain, the only organization with jurisdiction regarding nuclear power matters is the Nuclear Safety Council (CSN), which establishes the principles and regulations that apply to nuclear power.
“The regulation of nuclear safety encompasses everything from the location, construction and operation to the decommissioning and shut down of nuclear power plants"
This regulation of nuclear safety encompasses everything from the location, construction and operation to the decommissioning and shut down of nuclear power plants. It is fundamentally based on the application of the "Defense in Depth" (DiD) principle, which consists of the interposition of a set of redundant and diverse physical and administrative barriers against potential radiological risks. All safety measures are focused on preventing incidents and mitigating their consequences in the event of an incident.
In order to reach and maintain an adequate level of nuclear safety, CSN also requires plant owners to ensure that the personnel at their organizations is properly qualified, with very high and demanding training levels that must be periodically sustained and updated.
"The Defense in Depth principle consists of the interposition of a set of redundant and diverse physical and administrative barriers against potential radiological risks"
Last but not least, nuclear power plant owners must also have an effective safety culture in place in their organizations, so that their values and behaviours reflect a collective commitment, not just from managers but also everyone else, to place safety at the maximum priority.
“Safety is always the maximum priority”
What international protocols must be followed?
Spain participates in several international organizations that have established norms and recommendations included in our legislation, with compliance from our nuclear power plants. One of these organizations is the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the OCDE Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA).
As well as this, Spain participates voluntarily in international fora dedicated to share experiences and adopt norms and regulations. One of these fora is the pressurized water and boiling water reactor owner group (PWROG and BWROG), coordinated by the technologists at our sites, and WANO, which I already mentioned.
How do you reach the high standards of reliability and security in nuclear power plants?
The Spanish regulation on nuclear safety is very demanding; compliance guarantees very high safety standards. However, as responsible operators, nuclear power plants don't just settle for the strict compliance of this regulation; they go further than that and have established integrated systems with processes that are always seeking continuous improvement. In my opinion, one of the most powerful tools for this purpose is operating experience. The knowledge and analysis of events that have previously taken place at the plant itself or in other plants around the world, taking preventative or anticipative measures to prevent the repetition of these events, significantly contributes to keeping the highest standards of excellence always.
"The Spanish regulation on nuclear safety is very demanding, and compliance guarantees very high safety standards"
Finally, this excellence is achieved with the commitment and professionality of all nuclear workers. Our nuclear power plants have highly qualified personnel in constant training and very commited to the reliability and safety of sites. Thanks to their effort, every year consistenly, our plants are among the list of sites with the world's best operative results.
“Excellence in operation is achieved with the commitment and professionality of all nuclear workers"
You were Nuclear Safety Manager at Iberdrola. What would you say to those who do not consider nuclear power plants to be safe?
In today's world there is no zero risk, and thus there is no absolute security. Nuclear power plants, however, are very safe sites, among the safest in the world, much more than other industries we are used to living with. The energy obtained from nuclear power plants produces enormous benefits to society, free from polluting or greenhouse effect emissions, and this benefit greatly surpasses any risk.
“Nuclear power plants are very safe sites"
You were Director of Cofrentes (Valencia), which in early 2021 received authorization to operate until 2030. What was the result of presenting documents such as the periodical revision of safety?
The safety of nuclear power plants is being continuously updated and improved. Every year, large sums are invested in safety improvements as a consequence of applying operating experiences, new regulations or updating equipment and components. Also, every ten years there is a compulsory formal safety review, which is necessary in order to update the authorization of operation at the sites.
“The safety of nuclear power plants is being continuously updated and improved"
These reviews are a key milestone for nuclear power plants, and involve an important team of people from all the organizations. This team goes over the past ten years of operation and analyzes the site's strengths and weaknesses with the fundamental goal of creating an action plant to maintain or increase the safety of the site, ensuring that it stays at a high level until the next review.
The resulting action plan includes almost one hundred improvement actions that are carried out through an investment program and the effort of their own resources. In the case of Cofrentes, this means over 70,000 hours of work.
“La sociedad española se está dando cuenta del papel fundamental que juega la energía nuclear en la transición energética”
¿Cree que la sociedad reconoce el papel de la energía nuclear en la transición energética?
I believe Spanish society is more and more aware of the fundamental role of nuclear power in the energy transtition. This is one of the points included in the Integrated Energy and Climate National for 2021-203o. This document explains that, if the reactors had been decommissioned after their 40 years of life, the entire nuclear fleet would have been shut down before 2030. According to the sensibility analyses carried out, in those circunstances it would not have been possible to reach the goal of mitigating 20% emissions in regard to the year 1990.
The increasing cost of gas and of CO2 emissions rights have uncovered the risk that depending on fossil fuels means for the economy, and the need to have a reliable and stable source of energy such as nuclear power.
“It is necessary to have a reliable energy source such as nuclear power"
How do you see the global nuclear development?
I think global nuclear development is essential to fully reach the energy goals listed in the Paris Agreement.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) publishes the annual report World Energy Outlook, which analyzes the various future scenarios for global energy. In the Report's "zero net emissions for 2050" scenario, it is estimated that around 180 GW of new nuclear capacity will be necessary by 3020. If we look at the less ambitious "sustainable development" scenario, we would still need 140 GW of new nuclear capacity by 2030.
I believe there is explicit recognition of the potential of nuclear power to play an important role in the transition to a clean energy system that predicts the future growth for this type of energy. This is also one of the points in a report that evaluates the different technologies for electricity generation, regarding their possible environmental impacts on human health, ecosystems and the need for resources. The report was published by the United Nations Economic Comission for Europe (UNECE), and indicates two important advantages of nuclear power: on one hand it has the lowest life cycle in greenhouse effect gases of any technology, including renewables, and on the other hand it presents the lowest requisites for using soil and non-combustible mining of any low-emissions technology.
“Nuclear power has the lowest life cycle in greenhouse effect gas emissions of any other technology"
What about the international participation of the Spanish nuclear industry and their professionals?
The Spanish nuclear industry has been able to maintain very high levels of quality and professionality, and this has gained worldwide recognition. Our companies offer services with the highest technological level to all the nuclear power plants in the world and have successfully adapted to the changes and opportunities that came along.
During the period in which I was fortunate to work in the nuclear development of the nine nuclear power plants in the United Kingdom, I personally witnessed this recognition of the Spanish nuclear industry and its professionals.
“The Spanish nuclear industry has been able to maintain very high levels of quality and professionality, and this has gained worldwide recognition"