Former Safety Chief Blows Whistle on Poor Safety Culture - Interview with Lars-Olov Höglund on the Forsmark incident

Published by WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor on September 6, 2006

Work on an interlocking station adjacent to reactor 1 at Sweden's reputedly safest nuclear installation put half the control room in the dark. Attempts to get reserve generators on line failed, and for 23 minutes no one in the control room could be sure what was happening in the reactor or whether a meltdown could be avoided. Eventually, an engineer from Forsmark 2 -which fortunately was idle for scheduled repairs, managed manually to get diesel-supported generators to kick in. It was, according to Lars-Olov Höglund, a former safety chief at Forsmark, sheer luck that saved the day.

(649.5761) WISE Sweden - Just how close Forsmark came to a meltdown and explosion likely of the magnitude of Chernobyl, no one can say. The only thing everyone can agree on that it was entirely too close, says Lars-Olov Höglund.

Höglund is one of very few members of the nuclear community who has spoken out on faults in the so-called culture of safety in the Swedish nuclear industry. Now an independent consultant Höglund complains of corners being cut, of poor morale, of understaffing and even outright incompetence on the part of staff charged to keep a Swedish Chernobyl from occurring. Many nuclear engineers are worried, he says; few choose to speak out.Höglund says he is not necessarily against nuclear energy per se. What bothers him is the commercialization of such a risk-filled technology. The profit motive is safety's worst enemy, he says. A maverick, he is well-known in Sweden for his unflaggng criticism of poor safety culture in the industry. He has opened a number of court cases and seen to it that latent risk factors receive public attention.

Höglund chose to speak out on the events at Forsmark when he read an article in Sweden's leading daily newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, 1st August. The article gave him the distinct impression that "someone was trying to sweep the incident under the carpet". That "someone" was apparently Forsmark's management, who were quick to claim that the problem had been identified and dealt with, and urged the regulatory authority to allow the reactor to come back on line only 5 days after the near-catastrophe. The claim was unfounded. A week further along, the problem has been localized to a rectifier that had been incorrectly installed sometime in the 1990s.

Nuclear safety officers take two phenomena extremely seriously: common cause failure (in essence: when multiple failures arise out of the same cause) and systems interdependency. The events at Forsmark combine both, says Höglund.

Who's to blame?

Accusations and counter-accusations have filled the press since the incident became known. I asked Lars-Olov Höglund to help me sort them all out.

AEG, supplier of the equipment, has been accused of withholding vital information. In Lars-Olov Höglund's estimation, AEG's part in the drama is minimal. AEG had no responsibilities in this case beyond the manufacture of the equipment, he says.

The real problem - which has far-reaching implications - is that Forsmark and its owner, Vattenfall, no longer have design-competent staff who vet planned installations beforehand. All too much is left to trial and error, Höglund says. And not only at Forsmark. This is only the latest instance of what Höglund regards as rampant nonchalance.

A case in point: Readers of the Monitor may recall a problem at Barsebäck 2 a couple of years ago, where severe fluctuations in the water pressure in the reactor's cooling system had been noted four whole months before the plant even reported the problem to SKI, let alone tried to do anything about it. The problem arose in the dead of winter, when electricity prices were sky-high. The "cost" to the company of stopping the reactor and removing what turned out to be pipe fragments from the tubes was simply too high.

Returning to the present, even the fact that work was allowed to be done on the interlocking apparatus while Forsmark 1 was on line is a breach of what were once standard precautions, Höglund warns.

The regulator, SKI, also bears a good share of responsibility, not for the incident, but for the state of the culture of security, that is, the prevailing psychological climate surrounding issues of safety.

"Control is good, good faith is better." The phrase may sound Orwellian, like something out of Animal Farm, but it is actually how SKI sums up its regulatory philosophy. SKI is extremely careful not to spoil the cooperative spirit between regulator and the industry. In actual fact, SKI is so poorly staffed that they are dependent on the industry for information, Höglund explains. SKI's approach to regulation is essentially the honor system.

SKI's mandate: reactor safety or PR-consultancy?

But the question is, does the regulator even want to regulate? More often than not -- and even in the case of this "near-Chernobyl" -- SKI nurtures the myth of "Swedish nuclear energy, safest in the world". At the same time, SKI is very liberal when it comes to allowing Swedish reactors ample time (in some cases unlimited) to adapt to new, stricter regulations. Lars-Olov Höglund asks: "What good are stricter rules, if nobody needs to follow them? It's a little like the old Soviet Constitution -- the most progressive in the world when it came to civil rights and liberties!"

Nor does Höglund have much respect for SKI's risk assessments and scenarios. "Any eventuality that might have far-reaching consequences is assigned zero probability. Otherwise, the reactors would not be allowed to operate. Someone ought to ask SKI what the probability is that all four reserve power systems fail. I'll bet their answer is zero -- which would say a lot about SKI," Höglund suggests, only half in jest. "Much of the in-data is pure conjecture, and not seldom wishful thinking. Of the ten Swedish reactors now in operation, only two are identical. That means that the empirical experience of the reactors' operations is very limited. Therefore, a lot has to be conjecture - and tactics vis-à- vis politicians and Sweden's Environmental Courts."

SKI, for their part, has said that Höglund grossly exaggerates the danger of the incident at Forsmark. The situation was never out of control; the staff kept their heads, acted competently and managed the crisis well.

SKI has been keen to tell everyone that what happened was "only a 2 on the INES scale". That is true, and the rating is accurate, says Höglund. No radioactive emissions occurred, no functions were permanently damaged. But what SKI does not say, is that the INES scale says nothing about the risks involved, about the severity of what might have happened.

Within the Swedish reactor safety community the incident has been classed as a "Group 1 event", the most serious of three categories, where the facility in question must be taken off line until the fault has been corrected. "To go on talking to journalists about the low INES rating and not admit the seriousness of what happened is pure PR 'flak'," says Höglund.

Two other facts besides the Group 1-rating speak for the severity of the incident: 1. Two other reactors have been taken off line just in case they have the same faulty installation. Twin reactor Forsmark 2 remains idle for the same reason. 2. At one point during the black-out a decision was taken to evacuate all personnel who did not absolutely have to remain on duty. No evacuation took place -- for the simple reason that the public address system was blacked out, too.

The thrills and chills of the crisis have now passed. But if Lars-Olov Höglund is right about the culture of safety among owners and operators of Swedish reactors, the implications for our future are no less chilling. Several Swedish reactors -- a couple around 30 years old - are in the process of being upgraded to operate at higher temperatures. Lars-Olov Höglund is apprehensive: "It's like putting a turbo engine into a Volvo Amazon [from the 1970s]. The suspension, brakes and what- have-you just aren't up to it. Add to that, that today's technicians have such a poor understanding of failsafe thinking ... The upgrading necessarily implies poorer reactor safety, bigger risks."

Lars-Olov Höglund's recipe is this: "Stop pouring money into the upgrading of old reactors. Put it instead into entirely new electricity production -maybe nuclear, but why not windpower? Vattenfall has hardly done a proper job of exploring the possibilities even if they have frittered away a lot of money on it."

We have yet to see what repercussions the incident at Forsmark 1 will have among Swedish policy-makers. One thing is for certain: without whistle-blower Lars-Olov Höglund even we in Sweden might never know the true extent of what happened there.

Source and Contact: Charly Hultén, WISE Sweden