“It’s hard work”: Inspectors on inspecting inspectors

Just this once, the roles are reversed and it is the inspectors who are being inspected. ENSI is to undergo rigorous scrutiny by the IAEA experts during the two-week IRRS mission. But what is the procedure for an inspection of inspectors? For one whole day, ENSI’s communications department observed the work of the IAEA experts at first hand.

IRRS Entrance Meeting
IRRS Entrance Meeting

It’s just after eight o’ clock on Wednesday morning. Four stern-faced IAEA inspectors clad in winter overcoats are making their way through the thick fog to ENSI in Brugg. Deep in discussion, they stride purposefully with their briefcases under their arms up to the second floor, where they go their separate ways. People gradually begin to fill the rooms where the IAEA experts focus intensively on the issues related to their specialist modules during the two-week mission.

It is 8.30 a.m. when team leader Jean-Christophe Niel of ASN, the French regulatory authority, opens the joint session of the 24-member IRRS delegation. Leafing through their documents, the experts review yesterday’s events. The key findings from the previous day have to be singled out, collated and discussed. Two issues surfaced that could not be clarified straight away, and they have to be discussed again with the help of the responsible ENSI section head after this meeting. After half an hour, the first joint morning conference comes to an end and the IRRS inspectors spread out to different parts of the building – some of them after pausing for an invigorating cup of coffee.

The morning is filled with intensive questioning of ENSI employees. The topics and questions are worked through within the specific modules, covering areas such as the management system, guidelines, radiation protection and emergency preparedness, etc. The responsible specialists at ENSI are held to account by the IAEA experts. This is a somewhat unfamiliar situation for the ENSI inspectors – normally it is they who take an in-depth look and pose questions when they carry out their own inspections of power plants. One or two ENSI employees seem unable to come to terms with this role reversal right away, and they appear to be edgy. At times, the discussions resemble a school examination. So the lunch-break comes as quite a relief to some of the interviewees – although it only lasts a short while. The inspectors even come across as serious during the break. There is not much talk, and nothing at all is said about open issues or interim results.

Focused work and concentrated listening

Brugg is still shrouded in thick fog. But this is of little concern to the IAEA experts. The one-hour lunch break is just long enough to stand and eat some sandwiches and drink coffee. The last bite has no sooner been swallowed than the inspectors return to the meeting room, where they continue their questioning. The discussions are intense and the experts quite often delve into fine detail, but the atmosphere is good.

The programme includes an emergency exercise involving the Gösgen nuclear power plant, which will last until the evening. As well as the operating team at Gösgen, the Office for Military and Civil Defense of the Canton of Solothurn, the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC) and ENSI will also be taking part in this exercise. Several IAEA experts will follow the exercise; some of them leave for the Gösgen nuclear power plant, while others head for the NEOC in Zurich. The experts also follow the exercise closely at ENSI’s site in Brugg. The organisation and working procedures of the individual emergency organisations are assessed.

Mitarbeiter des Ensi erklärt
An ENSI employee explains

Shortly after 2 p.m., a beeping sound is heard in the corridors and offices. About one third of ENSI’s employees receive the alarm via their pagers, and they move down to the protected emergency room in the basement. They are somewhat surprised to find an IAEA inspector and other observers of the exercise already waiting in the operations room with pens poised. But they are soon forgotten because although this is an exercise, it is taken seriously. Check the list of those present, gather information, establish connections, occupy the workstation – and it’s not long before the briefing report begins. The power transmission grid in north-west Switzerland has collapsed. Then, during the scram (emergency shutdown) of the Gösgen nuclear power plant, damage has occurred in the steam generator. Radioactivity is escaping.

The IAEA inspectors usually finish their day with a joint team meeting at 5 p.m. Today, however, not all of them can attend the meeting. Some of them are still involved as observers in the emergency exercise which will last well into the evening; others are still with ENSI inspectors at the Beznau nuclear power plant, where they are inspecting an inspection. This evening, therefore, mission leader Niel is able to wrap up the team meeting rather more quickly than on the previous day. At the end of the day, each member of the team has to deliver a brief oral report on the day’s findings regarding his or her module. The objective is also to identify points of contact between the individual modules and to coordinate their evaluation.

At 6 p.m., the IAEA inspectors are finally able to take a breather – but the day is not yet over because individual tasks await them. Today’s findings require further evaluation and the results must be recorded in writing. The various contributions are assembled within the team so that the entire final report will be available on schedule, providing helpful feedback for ENSI.

After the team meeting, some of the members go outside to smoke a cigarette while others are deep in discussion. They they vanish into the fog which still has Brugg firmly in its grip, heading for the train station and the journey back to their hotel. Some of them meet up again to eat dinner together before they process the day’s notes in their hotel rooms – after all, today’s summary has to be available early tomorrow morning. An IRRS mission really is “hard work”, as one team member comments − with a smile and a frown at the same time.