May 18, 2011 / 4:30 PM / 8 years ago

INTERVIEW-Fukushima human factor under the microscope

* Fukushima situation remains serious

* EU nuclear “stress tests” are about natural hazards

By Karolin Schaps

LONDON, May 18 (Reuters) - Human reactions under extreme stress must be studied as well the technical details of Japan’s nuclear crisis, the head of a group of international atomic experts heading to Fukushima told Reuters on Wednesday.

“We ought to understand the human factors, why did their people respond the way they did?” said Mike Weightman, leader of the 20-strong International Atomic Energy Agency group.

“We do take this into account in designs, we don’t just think it’s engineering — it’s all about human beings,” he added.

“Imagine what it means when your family perhaps is affected, the tsunami destroyed your home, but you have to be onsite.”

The way in which workers at Tokyo Electric’s Fukushima Daiichi plant faced the worst nuclear accident in 25 years could provide valuable lessons, said Weightman, also chief of Britain’s Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR).

The chartered engineer and physician will lead the team on a 10-day discovery mission to Japan on May 24.

“There are operational logs available that we can look at, ask questions through interpreters, find out what happened when and then piece it all together,” Weightman said.

The experts will present their findings at a ministerial conference in Vienna scheduled for June 20-24.

Weightman said the situation at Fukushima remained serious and that even though the operator was gaining control, everyone should remain “eternally vigilant”.

In the aftermath of Japan’s nuclear crisis, European nuclear watchdogs are set to agree on harmonised “stress tests” for 143 nuclear reactors, but countries are divided about whether to include testing resilience against terrorist attacks.

Weightman, who took part in discussions in Brussels last week, said the consequences of natural hazards or terrorist attacks on nuclear plants were eventually the same, as power and cooling would be lost.

“(The stress test) is about natural hazards. Some of the way in which you look at these things can apply to terrorism or extreme natural hazards,” Weightman said, refusing to go into more detail about the plans. Weightman was commissioned by the British government shortly after the Japanese earthquake to assess what the disaster’s consequences are for its own nuclear power sector.

In his initial report published on Wednesday he urged Areva and Westinghouse, two companies which have put forward reactor designs to be used to build new nuclear plants in Britain, to respond to the report’s findings within one month’s time.

Even though further information is required, Weightman did not expect the companies’ designs to need major changes in the light of his report’s recommendations.

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