HELSINKI Finland is pushing to ensure that complacency does not threaten its nuclear safety record as it builds new reactors despite the Fukushima disaster, which has made some other European states think twice about atomic energy.
The head of Finland's nuclear safety body, Petteri Tiippana, said cultural as well as technical lessons had to be learnt from the crisis in Japan, the worst in a quarter of a century.
"It was said in a report in Japan that the underlying causes of the accident had to do with the Japanese culture: how they work, what is their relationship with safety and the mindset in general for nuclear safety," Tiippana told Reuters.
Finland was also not safe from cultivating a false sense of security because its four nuclear reactors have operated safely and reliably so far, said Tiippana, director general of the radiation and nuclear safety authority STUK.
"We would be very narrow-minded if we just focused on external threats," he said in the interview conducted on Thursday. "National traditions, cultures can have significant impact on how people feel about safety."
Tiippana did not say which report in Japan he was referring to. However, Japan's nuclear regulator has said that raising the country's safety culture to international standards would "take a long time" following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami which destroyed the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant, leaking radiation into the sea and air.
Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, said on Thursday that Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), the stricken plant's operator, was still putting out questionable data on the radiation leaks.
Tiippana said Finland had to avoid anything "like the mindset in Japan that accidents do not happen; a severe accident is impossible and one does not have to get prepared for that".
Many countries have reviewed their stance on nuclear energy since the Fukushima accident, the worst since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster when a Soviet plant exploded in Ukraine. In Europe, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium have opted to shift away from nuclear to increase their reliance on renewable energy.
A RATIONAL AND PRAGMATIC CULTURE
Finnish leaders have said their country would stay its nuclear course in pursuit of cheaper and emission free electricity, citing the country's rational and pragmatic culture.
Tiippana said his agency had launched a study of cultural attitudes towards safety, aiming to identify ways of improving security beyond technical preparedness. "We have our own benefits and shortcomings coming from cultural traditions. We have to study what those might be," he said.
This research will be carried out with the University of Jyvaskyla in central Finland, which will interview people working in safety-related organizations. "One of the interesting conclusions would be to see if internationally-agreed definitions of safety culture and safety culture attributes fit well with the Finnish culture," Tiippana said.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is also planning a workshop on global safety culture and the influence of national cultures on it.
The Fennovoima project in Pyhajoki, northern Finland, was the first new reactor site to be announced after Fukushima. But critics of Finland's nuclear ambitions note that some projects have not gone smoothly. Construction of Olkiluoto 3, Finland's fifth reactor which Areva and Siemens are building for utility Teollisuuden Voima, has been plagued by delays and cost overruns.
Tiippana said he had to walk a fine line of reassuring Finns without lulling them into a false sense of security. "It is a little bit of a dilemma, to communicate to people that the plants are safe, but still they have to be prepared for accidents," he said.
(editing by David Stamp)