On call 24/7 - how GRS supports the Federal Radiological Situation Centre
Radiological emergency protection in Germany was reorganized in 2017 by the new Radiation Protection Act. In the course, the Federal Radiological Emergency Centre was established. GRS has by law been assigned the task of supporting the Federal Radiological Emergency Centre in its work together with the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS), the Federal Office for Safety in Nuclear Waste Management (BASE), and the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance. In our interview, GRS expert Dr Albert Kreuser explains how the emergency organisation at GRS works and how his colleagues prepare for a possible mission.
Dr Kreuser, you are the head of operations of the GRS Emergency Centre for Nuclear Emergencies in Cologne. To start with, can you briefly explain what the task of the Federal Radiological Situation Centre is?
The Radiological Situation Centre is a decentrally organised crisis team under the direction of the Federal Ministry for the Environment. It becomes active when it becomes necessary to have a clear picture of the radiological situation in supraregional emergencies and protective measures may have to be coordinated and communicated.
What is the role of GRS in this context?
We focus on what has happened in the nuclear facility affected. From our emergency centre in Cologne, we analyse what exactly happened and how the situation should be assessed. Among other things, we use various databases with technical information about the plants for this purpose. In addition, we have analysed a large number of possible accident sequences with special simulation software and can compare these simulation results with the actual processes in a plant.
Based on all this information, we make estimates regarding the further course of the accident, for example whether, when and how much radioactive material may be released into the environment. We also look at what emergency measures the operator can still take. We then hand over our results to the Federal Environment Ministry. There, the radiological situation picture is drawn, which also takes into account the results provided by the other institutions involved.
How do you know when the GRS emergency centre has to kick in?
We are on call around the clock - even at weekends and at night. Outside working hours, one of the staff is always on call and can be reached by mobile phone. The alert runs via the Federal Ministry for the Environment. But we can also activate our emergency organisation ourselves if we learn through other channels that an accident has occurred at a nuclear power plant.
And then what happens?
When we are alerted, the first task is to put together a shift team. Then the tasks are distributed: Who does what? Who has which position? The next step is to inform the Federal Ministry for the Environment that we are ready for action. Then we agree on when our first situation report should be sent to the Federal Ministry for the Environment. From then on, we try to collect reliable information about the condition of the plant: via the emergency portals of the authorities or by contacting relevant authorities, operators, TÜVs, and foreign institutions.
Then we normally send out a situation report every hour. If it becomes foreseeable that the event will last longer, which will always be the case with an accident like this, the first shift leader draws up a shift plan and informs the follow-up shifts.
Fortunately, a nuclear emergency is not an everyday occurrence, but a very rare one. How does GRS prepare for an emergency?
Ultimately, our daily work is our best preparation. We conduct research and work in all possible areas of reactor safety. Relevant to the work in the emergency centre are, for example, the evaluation of worldwide operating experience in nuclear power plants, the analyses of possible incident and accident sequences. What exactly happens? When does a core meltdown occur? When do radioactive substances get released into the environment and in what quantities? We have colleagues who are working on gathering information about the design of nuclear power plants worldwide. How are they constructed? What safety systems are there? What emergency measures are in place? On top of that, we have experts who develop computer codes that can be used to estimate the sequence of an accident from selective information.
And finally, maintaining contacts with other domestic and foreign partner organisations helps to have contact persons in the respective country in case of need. Apart from that, there are exercises in all sorts of constellations.
How should one imagine these exercises?
These are bilateral exercises with the Federal Ministry for the Environment, exercises by the Radiological Situation Centre with state authorities, exercises with neighbouring countries. Once a year there is a major exercise. Some exercises last one day, some last several days. Separately, we conduct internal exercises during working hours to practice alerting, communication channels, and work processes. In addition, GRS also devises such exercises and we evaluate at the end how they went. For each exercise, there is a fictitious scenario, which you can imagine as a kind of script.
In 2011, when the reactor accident at Fukushima occurred, you were already working at the GRS Emergency Centre. Can you give an insight into how the work of the Emergency Centre proceeded back then?
Fukushima started during normal working hours. A colleague had heard through news channels that some nuclear power plants in Japan had been affected by the tsunami and were in major trouble. We then manned the Emergency Centre. That's how it went at the time.
What happened after the alert?
We tried to find out as much as possible about the accident: from various websites in Japan, from the authorities, from the operator, from nuclear organisations, from the manufacturer and from Japanese television. We had a Japanese interpreter with us who followed the live coverage with the colleagues to get clues as early as possible about what was going on there.
We had to familiarise ourselves in a very short time with the Japanese plant technology, of which we had no specific detailed information. We only had information on similar plants from comparable series. For a week, we worked around the clock in shifts, using all possible channels to try to obtain information. But even after that, we were still busy for several weeks preparing daily situation reports for the Federal Ministry for the Environment.
What is your most important insight - in the sense of "lessons learned" - from this intensive time?
There were a lot of things. The simplest was that the teams had to be able to do their work undisturbed. After Fukushima, we therefore converted an entire floor at our Cologne offices for the Emergency Centre and equipped it with IT infrastructure. The specialist teams now have separate rooms there in which they can work. That is an important achievement. Today, we are also planning with much larger emergency teams than back then, because we have realised what large amounts of information we have to assess and that, in addition to our specialist work, we also have to fulfil communication and information requests on a large scale.
Crisis communication was an important topic. We noticed how vital it is to have a communication staff that handles the entire GRS press work. Due to the heavy workload, it is often not so easy for the experts to process the findings in a comprehensible manner for the interested public or the media.
We have also built up a knowledge base for emergencies called WINO. We have designed the database in such a way that we can use it well in an emergency. This means that it can be accessed quickly and the necessary technical information about the design of a nuclear power plant can be gathered in a few minutes. The information we have is prepared in such a way that even a third party can use it in an emergency.
What skills and qualities do you need to bring with you to be head of operations of an emergency centre?
For one thing, you have to have specialist knowledge of the design of nuclear power plants, their safety systems, safety equipment, and emergency measures. About incident and accident sequences, too. This helps to classify the detailed information that one receives in the course of such an accident. In addition to professional competence, you have to be able to concentrate on the work in hand even in such exceptional situations. When enquiries and information come in from all sides at the same time, you have to be able to organise and focus yourself and your team in such a way that you are able to deliver the reports expected by the Federal Ministry for the Environment in a technically correct and timely manner.
One last question: Are there any tasks or activities in your work as head of operations of the Emergency Centre that you particularly enjoy? Something that fascinates you?
I am fascinated by analysing our internal processes and devising them in such a way that everything works well. Seeing where there are still problems during the exercises and then developing them further. Training our colleagues, so that we can be ready for action more and more quickly when needed and so that the work can be done as stress-free and focused as possible. So that everyone knows what they have to do.
Thank you very much for the interview and the insight into your daily work, Dr Kreuser!