19 January 2013

UPDATE1: IAEA Reactor Status Modification Reversed on Japanese Government Request

The Japanese government has requested the reversal of the reactor status of 47 Japanese reactors from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s “Long-term Shutdown” (LTS) category to “In operation”. On 16 January 2013, the same 47 units were reclassified as in LTS (see Historic Move: IAEA Shifts 47 Japanese Reactors Into “Long-Term Shutdown” Category). However, the operation was reversed on 18 January and commented on by the IAEA in a press release on 19 January 2013.

An IAEA representative explained by email to the author [dated 18 January as a reply to a request from 16 January 2013, prior to our first story on the issue]: “In communication with the Government of Japan, it was identified that this status is not applicable for [the] time being and our Japanese counterpart changed the decision and the status was put back.” Another IAEA representative identified the “IAEA counterpart” in a phone interview as the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES). This was confirmed in the IAEA press release. According to the IAEA, JNES, an incorporated Administrative Agency, modified the raw country data in the online Power Reactor Information System (PRIS) of the IAEA. The modification was then automatically integrated into the World Overview pages of the Agency’s website.

Any correspondent or counterpart to the IAEA’s online database has to be authorized by the respective government. In addition, it is understood that modifications of the reactor status are controlled by the respective government. However, it is unclear what happened in this case, as it is hard to believe that such a massive modification of the reactor status of the Japanese reactor fleet happened at the initiative of an individual at JNES. If this was indeed the case, the question remains why this was done. The IAEA stated today that the Japanese counterparts yesterday advised the Agency that the “changes resulted from a clerical error”.

The explanation given of a “clerical error” is surprising and unconvincing. The reactor-by-reactor changes were precise and made perfect sense. In fact, all of the 47 reactors could well fall within the IAEA definition for LTS status:

“Reactor is considered in long-term shutdown status from the Long-term Shutdown date to the Restart Date, if it has been shut down for an extended period (usually more than one year) and any of the following conditions has occurred in early period of shutdown:

1. restart is not being aggressively pursued (there is no vigorous onsite activity to restart the unit) or

2. no firm restart date or recovery schedule has been established, but there is the intention to re-start the unit eventually.

This status may be for example due to technical, economical, strategic or political reasons. This status does not apply to long-term maintenance outages, including unit refurbishment, if the outage schedule is consistently followed, or to long-term outages due to regulatory restrictions (licence suspension), if restart (licence recovery) term and conditions have been established. Such units are still considered ‘operational’ (in a long-term outage).

If an intention not to restart the shutdown unit has been officially announced by the owner, the unit is considered ‘permanently shut-down’.”

Furthermore, if this incident was due to a simple “clerical error”, why would it take JNES two days rather than five minutes to notify the Agency?

The incident raises the question of the operational rules of the PRIS database. It seems astounding that representatives of individual governments, utilities, research or safety organizations can actually directly modify the IAEA’s public website. The IAEA explained that it “runs the PRIS database with input from its Member States, which own the information provided”. However, as a consequence of the Japan incident, the Agency decided to change the procedures:

“The Nuclear Energy Department of the IAEA, which runs the PRIS database, is implementing a software upgrade that in future would prevent status changes being entered into the system without the agreement of the system administrators, and would require clear justification from the national counterparts.”

Any outside observer would have expected this to be the rule before the incident. The overall information management by the IAEA and the Japanese authorities—with very significant changes in reactor statistics, one way or the other, without any public explanation for three days—puts serious doubts on the reliability of the information provided.