Public opinion has the privilege of being able to shift this way or that as events unfold. And in the age of social media, the way collective opinions are shaped is also described as herd behaviour.
All of us are on hand to witness every event live, round the clock – no matter where it might happen. Because we are kept up to speed in this way, we are expected to form opinions about anything and everything. Immediately. And that makes us part of the herd.
This is exactly what happened in connection with the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant on 11 March: we saw the earth move, we saw people seeking refuge underneath their desks, we watched as the flood wave swept over the land, we witnessed the explosions and we saw the smoke rising up. Live.
We were stunned and shocked. And we felt deep sympathy with the people who were affected.
This terrible earthquake and the catastrophic tsunami had a profound impact on all of us, especially in terms of the nature of our future relationship with nuclear power after the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
With such an emotionally charged mood prevailing, the employees of the Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate (ENSI) have a particular responsibility to shoulder. However, our mission is not to sway public opinion in any specific direction.
On the contrary, our remit is to make the basic facts, the data and the knowledge available to interested members of the public, so that each individual can comprehend the complex circumstances and is able to form his or her own opinion. We carry out this mission on the basis of complete openness and transparency.
We made a start on evaluating the information as soon as we received the first news reports from Japan. We garnered this information from every conceivable source, and checked its plausibility. But ENSI is also part of the international network, so Switzerland, like every other country, has access to important information in order to assess the situation.
Three days after the earthquake in Japan, the Federal Council halted the licensing process for new nuclear power plants, and the responsible working group was now assigned a new task: to process the events at Fukushima.
Safety is not a static condition – it is a process.
Based on early findings about the progression of the accident, ENSI ordered its first specific measure on 18 March: power plant operators were obliged to set up a central storage facility containing diesel generators, pumps and other emergency resources so that they would be able to procure sufficient equipment and materials from a safe location in case of severe accidents.
As the second measure, we asked the Swiss nuclear power plant operators to submit three sets of documentary proof on a staggered basis: proof of their ability to bring the 10,000-year flood under control, proof of ability to control the 10,000-year earthquake, and proof of ability to control a combination of earthquake and earthquake-induced failure of dam installations whose areas of influence include nuclear power plants.
These exercises are not being carried out as alibis to appease public opinion. If, within the stipulated periods, operators are unable to prove that a damaging incident involving radiation exposure above the limits can be be excluded in case of these natural disasters, they must withdraw their plants from the grid. Any applicable back-fitting measures would have to be implemented while the nuclear power plant is shut down.
To make the point crystal clear: there is no leeway for discretion, and no compromises will be accepted. Neither political circles nor any lobbying groups can influence ENSI’s decisions. It is impossible to place sufficient emphasis on the fact that we are an independent supervisory authority.
As such, we are also aware that the safety of nuclear plants is not merely a national matter. The safety of nuclear facilities is an international issue, and this is why we participate in the relevant international bodies. We are merely at the start of a lengthy and complex process of analysis.
It has to be a vital concern for every country that the IAEA Safety Standards should follow the rules of best practice and the latest developments in science and technology, and also that they should be valid throughout the world and should be implemented by the national supervisory authorities.
It was for these reasons that I proposed a strengthening of the global nuclear safety system at an OECD conference in Paris early in June. One measure in this regard would be to monitor the activities of national supervisory authorities by means of a peer review process.
Starting today, another meeting of ministers is taking place at the headquarters of the IAEA in Vienna, and Switzerland is also taking part in this event. We shall be putting our viewpoint forward with absolute clarity.
Hans Wanner, Director of ENSI