the merger of IRSN and ASN “must not be an obstacle to research”, Thierry Charles, former executive director of IRSN

Twice, the government attempted to merge the two nuclear safety organizations into an independent administrative agency, “stronger, more independent, more attractive”according to Industry Minister Roland Lescure, who now carries the bill. Technically, it is a merger of the Office for Nuclear Safety (ASN), the power plant’s supervisory body, and the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), responsible for technical expertise.

Thierry Charles, former IRSN Deputy Director General, was specifically in charge of nuclear safety. Examination of the text begins on Monday, March 11 in the meeting room. It is the subject of very strong opposition: opposition from elected officials, unions, employees as well as politicians with a previous rejection motion filed by the Liot group. The opposition is particularly concerned about opacity and preferred to keep the separation between expertise and decision.

franceinfo: Is the merger of these two organizations a good idea?

Thierry Charles: The system we know, with two actors, is a very old system. Almost since the beginning of nuclear control in 1973, there has always been an expert, that is, an entity that will analyze the risks for the authority, which will then decide. This system lasted about 50 years. And suddenly, at the Nuclear Policy Council meeting in February 2023, a decision was issued based on a secret report. That is, without knowing the reason, we decided overnight that we finally had to officially, I mean officially, merge the two organizations to facilitate the introduction of new nuclear power to make it more fluid.

The major French nuclear project includes the construction of six EPRs from 2035 as well as small SMR reactors. According to those close to the Minister of Industry, this merger would make it possible to strengthen nuclear safety and bring greater efficiency and speed to decision-making processes. Do you understand this approach?

It is quite normal to think during this relaunch of nuclear power, both about the industry that will build it and the system that will control it. On the other hand, what is abnormal is not doing a study before making this adjustment.

“There is no report studying the strengths and weaknesses of the current system and no study of the actual impact.”

Thierry Charles

at franceinfo

The only report that exists is from the Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Science and Technology Choices, which assessed the implications of the grouping in July 2023. But he didn’t go very far and came to the conclusion that it was necessary to regroup without arguing.

What are the risks? Are there real risks of disorganization?

It is clear that there is a strong threat of destabilization in the current situation. We are not going from a two actor system to a single actor overnight, to be implemented in early 2025, that’s tomorrow! That would mean we would know what we want to do from now on, but we don’t.

If there is a single actor, we understand that decision making is easier and also faster.

What exactly does “easier to take” mean? What do we require from the control system? He is asked to be competent and trustworthy.

We certainly do not lose skills at the beginning. But the fundamental point is to manage research in a system like this. Expertise involves knowledge, and knowledge is based on research. IRSN consists of two main activities: research and expertise. We have to continue the research. The administrative structure that forms the ASN is a structure that is part of the state that uses state instruments. And maintaining research in a merged system is not easy.

“The ASN administrative structure that would absorb the IRSN is not a system that facilitates the conduct of research. However, research must be preserved.”

Thierry Charles

at franceinfo

In effect, you have two complementary entities that will judge on one side and decide on the other. When you have one system, it’s less robust. Why ? Because in case of pressure, he is the only actor who bears all the pressure. That’s one of the risks. The second risk concerns the level of trust towards our fellow citizens. The two-actor system is complementary, each bringing slightly different information. In the new system we see only one. Why does the government want to do this development? This is a global silencing of IRSN.

That’s what you say.

Yes, if you look at what is written, it is disputed that IRSN talks too much. He forwards his opinions to the security office and at the same time places them on the Internet. So everyone has access to information and it is said that it is completely abnormal. We can clearly see that in the future the system will be much more “controlled”, let’s say.

We see that the government persists. This fusion project has been rejected twice and is being presented again today. how to explain it?

The argument is “fluidification” and “facilitation”. A single actor, why not, but we cannot do it without reflection, without risking a step back in relation to current achievements, especially a step back in research.

There is something else, it is a safety and security department with a security part that will be under the leadership of CEA, the Atomic Energy Commission, and thus the Ministry of Defense. Is it also a risk?

IRSN was created as a crucible of expertise on nuclear risks. There was civil security, defense security, security of nuclear materials and malicious intent, and then everything related to protecting people and the environment. So this cup would respond to a number of authorities, civil ASN, defense ASN, Directorate General of Health, Labor and so on. This crucible allowed for overall cohesion.

It will be taken apart tomorrow. For example, civil security will go to ASN and defense security to defense. Security will be taken care of by the defense system, which itself does not recognize civilian installations. And so we will lose consistency and from the point of view of security we will have a very hybrid system, the operation of which will be quite complicated.

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