IAEA Experts Conduct First Virtual Safety Peer Review Mission

In the first such mission held virtually, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team of experts said Lithuania had strengthened its regulatory framework for nuclear and radiation safety in recent years. The team said there was still room for further improvement in the area of radioactive waste management.

In the four decades that the IAEA has conducted nuclear and radiation safety peer review missions around the world, this was the first to be organized completely online due to the restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The IAEA’s work to help strengthen nuclear safety has not stopped during the pandemic,” said IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi. “When restrictions mean our experts cannot travel, the Agency has adapted its arrangements to allow our peer review and advisory services to be conducted virtually. In this way, we can continue to assist countries in implementing the highest levels of nuclear safety despite the current limitations related to travel and face-to-face meetings.”

The Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) team on 2 December concluded a seventeen-day follow-up mission to review Lithuania’s implementation of recommendations and suggestions made during a first mission in 2016. The follow-up mission was conducted at the request of the Government of Lithuania and hosted by two Lithuanian authorities: the State Nuclear Power Safety Inspectorate (VATESI) and the Radiation Protection Centre (RSC).

The team found that most of the recommendations and suggestions identified in 2016 had been implemented.

The experts met with specialists from VATESI, RSC and Lithuania’s Ministry of Energy online, and held daily team meetings to discuss and agree on mission findings. The duration of the mission was extended due to its virtual nature and to accommodate the time difference between team members, comprising seven senior regulatory experts from Canada, Finland, Netherlands, Pakistan, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom, and five IAEA staff members.

Using IAEA safety standards and international best practices, IRRS missions are designed to strengthen the effectiveness of the national regulatory infrastructure, while recognizing the responsibility of each State to ensure nuclear and radiation safety.

Lithuania’s Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant has two reactor units that were permanently shut down in 2004 and 2009 and are currently undergoing decommissioning. Spent fuel storage and radioactive waste management facilities are being constructed and are in operation in the country.

In addition, radioactive sources are used in medicine, research and industry.

The IRRS team said the Lithuanian authorities showed a strong commitment to nuclear and radiation safety and have taken active steps to address the recommendations and suggestions identified in 2016. In addition to an improved integration of IAEA safety standards into the legal framework on radiation protection, the review team welcomed that the framework was amended to increase public involvement in regulatory decision-making.

“Lithuania has made considerable efforts in improving the legal and regulatory framework and further enhancing its alignment with IAEA safety standards,” said IRRS team leader Anthony Hart, Technical Director at the United Kingdom’s Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR). “The team was particularly impressed with how graded approaches have been applied throughout the regulatory framework since 2016, allowing VATESI and RSC to focus their attention even better on where the risks and hazards are greatest,”

The team noted that there is still work to be done, particularly in finalising some of the arrangements needed for regulating the future management of Lithuania’s radioactive waste and its eventual disposal. Lithuania’s Ministry of Energy said it plans to address this in the revised National Radioactive Waste Management Programme. An IAEA Integrated Review Service for Radioactive Waste and Spent Fuel Management, Decommissioning and Remediation (ARTEMIS) mission will take place in June 2021 to review radioactive waste management in Lithuania in more detail.

“The team considers that the ARTEMIS mission could allow for one of our remaining recommendations to be addressed,” said Hart. “Beyond this, I would like to encourage VATESI and RSC to continue to engage actively with the IAEA so that the Lithuanian regulatory framework remains up to date and consistent with IAEA’s safety standards.”

The team issued a new recommendation to encourage VATESI to require updated safety assessment reports prior to any decision-making process to authorize the closure of radioactive waste disposal facilities. Two new suggestions were also made by the team: that VATESI considers broadening its range of available guidance for inspection of nuclear facilities, and that the Ministry of Health amends its basic radiation protection standards to better define where practices or sources may be exempted from regulatory control.

“I am pleased that the mission report recognizes the progress Lithuania has made since 2016, having implemented the majority of recommendations and suggestions from the previous mission,” said Michail Demčenko, Head of VATESI. “It will help us to focus on further fine-tuning our regulatory system to better keep it in line with international best practices.”

“The improvement of the radiation protection infrastructure in Lithuania has been a continuous process,” said Ramunė Marija Stasiūnaitienė, Acting Director of the RSC. “Though we will face new challenges in the future, we are pleased that our efforts and achievements have been positively assessed by international experts.”

The final mission report will be provided to the Government in about three months. The Government will make the report public.

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