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Historical Overview

The following historical overview is taken from the book "Half a Century of Nordic Nuclear Co-operation. An Insider's Recollection" by Franz R. Marcus published in 1997. A more recent overview of NKS is also available in the report entitled "Nordic Nuclear Safety Research 1994-2008: From Standardized 4-Year Classics To Customized R&B" by Torkel N. O. Bennerstedt published in 2011. 

  1. Introduction
  2. The beginning
  3. Need for mutual support and joint action
  4. External factors that influenced the Nordic cooperation
  5. So what have been the results of this Nordic venture?
  6. Some failures
  7. What did we learn from our specific Nordic way of working?
  8. What can we contribute to the future?

1. Introduction 


The Nordic cooperation in nuclear safety is a 40 year history of our five small countries, with a total of just over 23 million people, working together, sometimes amicably, sometimes less so. That they should work together is hardly surprising given their common historical and cultural background, and their similar organisation of democracy, the first example of which is found here in Iceland where the Alþingi met for the first time in the year 1000. Although the individual Scandinavian languages have moved away from the old Icelandic tongue, one extremely strong advantage for our cooperation is that with a little training most of us can communicate directly, each using our own languages without having to try to express nuances with idioms that are not our own.


Being a small group of closely related countries has not isolated us from what was happening in the rest of world, on the contrary, external factors have had a strong impact on the shape of this cooperation, and on its contents.


What may be surprising to the outside world is that these five countries often work as one single unit, which is demonstrated by this meeting of the NSFS where our countries appear as one single unit in the world assembly of radiation protection societies who together form the IRPA. Nordic work, and persons from our countries, have also had a significant impact on the development in the wider international development and on organisations shaping events - an impact much larger than their size would suggest.

It is this inter-relationship between the Nordic work, the external factors influencing it, and our input to international development which we shall be examining in this brief historical overview.

2. The beginning 


So how did it all start over 40 years ago? Following the second world war, the prospects for collaboration did not seem quite so clear. There were large differences between the Nordic countries. Iceland had just taken the step to be independent from Denmark, which together with Norway had been held by Germany and soon after the war joined NATO. Finland depended heavily on the Soviet Union, while neutral Sweden was maneuvering in between the blocks. Atomic questions in that period were necessarily a mixture of defense and peaceful applications. Some of the first issues were taken up by foresighted personalities, who typically had played outstanding roles during wartime, some even in the resistance against the occupation.


These individuals saw both the promising peaceful uses of this new energy source, and its risks. Despite the fact that it was difficult to obtain not only relevant information but also the nuclear material which was necessary for experiments, e.g. uranium and heavy water, until after the Atoms for Peace program was initiated in 1953, there was a quite early start in Sweden and Norway, already in the forties, with the start of reactor development and related research. There would seem to be a good basis for cooperation here.


Under the prevailing circumstances most of the early work was done nationally with only few Nordic contacts about such questions as heavy water, uranium, analysis, and calculations. The JEEP rector in Norway, the first one outside the big powers, was in operation as early as 1951 thanks to the foresighted Gunnar Randers. The next Nordic country to join the club was Sweden with its R1 reactor in 1954.


The second main outside incentive for cooperation was a consequence of the arms race "atoms for war": the fallout in the fifties over the Northern parts of Scandinavia where the Lapps lived and ate reindeer-meat. Concern for the consequences gave rise to consultations between Nordic authorities. Again it was influential personalities such as Rolf Sievert who actually started contacts with persons such as Jorma Miettinen in Finland and Thorleif Hvinden in Norway.


At the same time scientific and technical developments within the Nordic countries had an impact on the coming cooperation. On the theoretical side Niels Bohr and his institute in Copenhagen had gathered enthusiastic young physicists from all over the Nordic countries. On the practical side, from 1959 the Halden Project became a similar pole of attraction for young engineers from all the Nordic countries, who later returned to work on their national programs.


When collaboration about peaceful nuclear questions became the subject of international consideration in the mid-fifties with plans for the IAEA, for ENEA (today's NEA), for Euratom, and for UNSCEAR, the Nordic countries became eager participants and players. In fact people from the Nordic countries had a strong influence on their coming into being. Here are some examples: The second director general of the IAEA was Sigvard Eklund from Sweden, and the second director of the ENEA was Einar Sæland from Norway. Sweden played an important role in giving birth to UNSCEAR.

3. Need for mutual support and joint action 


We who live in the jet-age with its fax and e-mail, should remind ourselves of the practical difficulties with traveling and telephoning in the fifties. Leading persons - both on the administrative and on the technical side - felt isolated at home in their Nordic country when they had to face the multiple questions coming up in the atomic field. Personal contacts were essential, and these were being established in the Nordic situation.


This did not mean that all the Nordic countries would follow the same road. Each of the countries had its own objective in view of the coming nuclear age. In Denmark the goal was its multiple use for the benefit of society. Here in Iceland there seemed to be economic potential in the production of heavy water by using geothermal heat. In Finland a long course towards the use of nuclear power started. Norway hoped for nuclear propulsion of its merchant fleet. And Sweden had ambitions to create its own nuclear industry.


It was the general political development that paved the way. With the founding of the joint parliamentary Nordic Council in 1952, a new promoter for Nordic ventures appeared. Nuclear energy was identified as one possible issue of common interest.


The Nordic Council, still in existence to-day, consists of parliamentarians and ministers. It takes initiatives and makes recommendations to the governments. It was this political body who in 1957 initiated the establishment of two committees, one to cover technical aspects, the so called kontaktorgan, the liaison committee for nuclear energy. The other dealt with nuclear physics research.


Two years later, in 1959, the Nordic Council recommended the government institutes responsible for radiation protection to work together. This led their directors to form their Nordic "chiefs" group which still exists to-day. It organizes working groups with members of their institutes and consultations in matters of current interest.


The kontaktorgan was composed by top executives from ministries and other authorities. It provided a framework that permitted all types of questions to be taken up jointly. During the 33 years of its existence, the kontaktorgan laid the grand lines of the Nordic cooperation in its field, and also worked in some details, to discuss international ventures, and to further practical Nordic cooperation whenever warranted.


Its approach is characteristic of Nordic pragmatism. In some aspects it went quite far: thus its members arranged that the Nordic countries for many years shared one seat on the IAEA board.

4. External factors that influenced the Nordic cooperation 


National ambitions evolved over time, and in some cases continued to differ. This resulted in positive and negative inputs to the various cooperation schemes which developed. Nordic cooperation has always been an "à la carte" process. Furthermore, Nordic cooperation was never seen as an end in itself, but as a means to strengthen the countries' positions internationally, to gain a stronger voice.


By the sixties, the economic growth was both raising demand for electricity and providing the funds for reactor development work at the nuclear research centers. Public opinion was in favour of the new energy source. This belief in nuclear power as a cheap and clean energy source led to cooperation in questions related to reactor design and performance. The research institutes worked together on heavy water reactors that could use natural uranium - thereby coming in a certain opposition to the utilities who were expecting the breakthrough of light water reactors using enriched uranium that had to be imported. At the end of the sixties, and after investigation by the kontaktorgan, the research institutes established a Nordic coordination committee to strengthen their positions and make use of their complementary knowledge. The coordination committee was active from 1968 until the time, in 1981, at which the research institutes had moved away from nuclear research and to-days NKS had taken over safety research.


The coordination committee organized several large joint projects at a total cost of the order of USD 1-2 million annually. Although much of the work headed towards reactor construction, it indirectly dealt with safety questions. At this time most questions of technical safety and waste management belonged to the tasks of the research institutes and were taken up by the coordination committee. Collaboration in radiation protection was dealt with by the national authorities.


Concern about issues of safety and the capacity to evaluate the safety of nuclear reactors came up in connection with the planned visit of the US nuclear vessel N/S Savannah in 1964 to several harbours in the Nordic countries. This visibly put a strong burden on the authorities who were responsible for issuing the permits. The question of nuclear safety came up in the kontaktorgan in 1968. At its recommendation the competent authorities established the Nordic group on Reactor Safety, NARS. Its main purpose was to provide recommendations for the documentation to be used in license applications in the Nordic countries. Other fields of action were safety criteria and emergency provisions within nuclear sites.


In the seventies it was still believed that urban siting of nuclear power plants would be a realistic possibility. Experts from the other Nordic countries participated in the Swedish Urban siting study of a city-close location. The study was initiated when plans came up in 1968 for a combined heat-electricity nuclear power plant in central Stockholm. The outcome was that nuclear power reactors might well be located close to cities: the risk could be related to a loss-of-coolant accident, the risk of which was estimated to be of the order of 1-10 in a million, something which seemed acceptable. For the first time probabilistic methods were used.


This order of magnitude coincided with the finding of the NRC report WASH-1400 by Norman Rasmussen. A Nordic working group in 1975 undertook a systematic review of his report and confronted its results with the Swedish Urban study. Certain inconsistencies were actually found in Rasmussens study and notified to him.


However, in the seventies the opposition against nuclear power was already developing. An important person in this respect was the Swedish Nobel prize winner Hannes Alfvén who helped the anti-nuclear movement to gain political force. Serious protests arose in conjunction with Norwegian plans for a reactor site in the Oslo fjord in 1973.


In Denmark public debate increased strongly in the mid-seventies. Contacts had been established in 1968 between Swedish and Danish authorities concerning safety aspects of the planned Barsebäck plant, on the Swedish side, but close to Copenhagen. All relevant information was provided from the Swedish authorities and analyzed in Denmark prior to the issuing of a construction permit, both in case of the first and the second unit.


Many calculations have been made over the years to estimate possible effects in Denmark following a hypothetical accident at Barsebäck. In 1978 Danish calculations were submitted to the Swedish Energy commission to show that calculations made by consultants for the Swedish authorities, predicting serious consequences, were unreasonable. Unrealistic assumptions must be made in order to arrive at the high number of casualties indicated in these reports.


Initially, one fifth of the output of the first Barsebäck reactor was contracted to a Danish utility. This was frequently noticed at a time of increasing Danish opposition against nuclear power. It was not very popular, during a moment of disturbance in the electricity supply in Copenhagen, to remark "it must be a failure at Barsebäck!"


One of the off-shoots of this public protest was an attempt to improve information from the research institutes. In 1973 the coordination committee established a contact group for environmental information. Its members were to exchange information related to risks and environmental effects related to nuclear power. The group produced factual information, supposedly not biased in favour of nuclear.


The need for increased knowledge about accident sequences was strengthened by the concern in other countries. In the early seventies, voices of caution had come up, originating from the opposition movement in the USA, about the possible consequences of a loss-of-coolant accident following a pipe rupture in a reactor. A Nordic group in 1972 reviewed existing computer codes used in accident analysis. They recommended a cooperative effort "NORHAV" to produce a computational system for analysis of severe accidents. The NORHAV work was later offered as a Nordic in-kind payment when the USA team asked for competent input to the upcoming LOFT program, the large Loss Of Fluid Test.


In the early seventies it became evident that computer codes simulating accident sequences became very complicated, and the need for experimental verification increased. The advanced Swedish heavy water Marviken reactor, once it had been decided that the original project would not materialize, offered a practically finished large power reactor where full-scale experiments could be arranged in its containment. The Marviken experiments got under way with a Nordic group to assist at their birth, and later they became international ventures with a strong Swedish leadership, for many years encompassing Nordic participation.


In the meantime, what in the public opinion had seen a unlimited source of power, was now also seen as a source of dangerous waste. It was the management of low- and medium level waste which was the immediate task, and here four of the Nordic countries had comparable situations. The advantages of working together on this issue were readily apparent. After the first of a long series of Nordic seminars on waste in 1974, a need for better regulations and methods for waste disposal appeared.


The kontaktorgan sat up a waste group to formulate proposals accordingly. Through its composition this group became an example of the constructive cooperation that could be achieved between research institutes and authorities. It recommended that a comprehensive Nordic waste program be organized, where the practical work would be carried out by the coordination committee.


There have been many Nordic projects in the waste field, and some of the international waste programs managed from the Swedish authorities (with names such as Hydrocoin, Intraval, Biomovs etc.) were helped in their start by including them in Nordic programs.

Following the energy crisis in 1973 the concerns about safety were being balanced by the fear of energy shortage and dependence on vulnerable sources of energy supplied from abroad. The Nordic ministers for industry expressed their good-will for increased R&D on nuclear safety in order to open the way for replacing some of the oil-based generating capacity by new nuclear plants.

After long discussions in the now flourishing bureaucracy under the Nordic Council of ministers, this finally led to the start of an enlarged cooperation by the creation of the Nordic committee for nuclear safety research, NKS.


This was the start of a dynamic cooperation which to-day has become the most successful form of our Nordic schemes. NKS started its first program in 1977 and has in the past 19 years carried out a number of four-year programs, the emphasis of which have shifted over time.


The three first programs were with Nordic financing from the Council of ministers, which implied that political goodwill was required at the annual approval of budgets. After the Brundtland report "Our common future" a fight between the energy ministers over the use of Nordic energy research funds started. This resulted in a withdrawal by Sweden from the kontaktorgan - and without the Swedes it is hardly possible to continue a Nordic cooperation in this field.


But at the same time NKS was transferred from the political level to the competent authorities, who together have entered a Consortium agreement. Since 1990 the programs have been free from Nordic bureaucracy, which has been a great advantage. The Consortium group and a number of co-sponsors provide a basic finance of approximately USD 1 million annually, while the participating organisations make up to about an equal level.


In the eighties NKS' work has evidently been influenced by the accidents at TMI and Chernobyl. Earlier NKS programs on control rooms were turned first towards human factors and then towards computerized support in the management of accidents. Reactor safety work, originally on quality assurance and core calculations, was extended to include probabilistic methods and accident sequences. Work on emergency, countermeasures, public information, and radioecology received a new impetus after Chernobyl. All of the five NKS program have included waste management questions.

5. So what have been the results of this Nordic venture? 


What has been achieved over so many years of sometimes cooperating and sometimes competing? Was it worth it, all these projects, meetings, conferences, journeys?


Looking back, a number of substantial results can be displayed. We shall first look at some of those which have made the Nordic label visible to


  • Emergency assistance
    In 1959, when questions about reactor safety came up, a formal Nordic agreement on mutual emergency assistance in case of radiation accidents was drafted. According to this, the countries shall provide assistance - against reimbursement - to any of the contracting states in case of a nuclear accident. In order to enhance international cooperation, also the IAEA became part of the agreement, which was signed in 1963. This was a first-of-its-kind international convention in this field, to be followed by similar agreements much later, after the Chernobyl accident.

    After the accident at Thule in Greenland in 1968, when a US bomber crashed and plutonium was spread over the ice, Iceland - who had no nuclear installations - saw the necessity of joining this arrangement. This was done in a typically Nordic fashion through telephone calls "among friends" and just confirmed by an exchange of letters with the Danish authorities.

  • NARS
    The NARS recommendations on requirements for license applications were issued in 1974. Their principles have been used as the individual authorities advanced with more detailed national regulations. All the Nordic safety authorities have taken the same approach in their relations to applicants and licensees: it is up to the applicant to demonstrate the safety, not just by fulfilling certain requirements stipulated by the authorities. This approach has contributed to the good relations between authorities and utilities in the Nordic countries and the high safety level achieved.

  • Border agreement
    During its work NARS found that there was a need to assure contact, in an early phase, with a neighbouring country's authorities if a nuclear plant were to be located close to its border. An exchange of information ought to be mandatory, and the neighbouring country should have the right to request consultations. The kontaktorgan took up this issue and an agreement was formalized in 1976 in the four countries and referred to as being a specific case in a more general Nordic environmental agreement.

  • Flag books
    One outcome of the cooperation among radiation protection agencies is the series of Nordic "flag-books". They deal with international recommendations in the field of radiation protection, adapting them to the conditions prevailing in the Nordic countries. The first "flag-book" on radiation protection norms was issued in 1976. It was followed by others, dealing with more specific issues, in particular basic criteria for high level radioactive waste. As a result, national regulations, although still independent, are on the same basis.

  • "Nordic groups"
    Several Nordic groups have made themselves known internationally over time. Three of them can be mentioned here: The NORHAV group, with specialist in accident sequence calculations; the Nordic transport group, at a certain time forwarding joint comments to proposed IAEA regulations; the "Nordic atomic libraries joint secretariat" who entered into international agreements on computerized documentation, including the safety and waste fields.

Other achievements are perhaps not known outside of the Nordic area but deserve to be mentioned. Perhaps the most important is that Nordic authorities have acquired a basis for uniform working patterns in fields such as quality assurance, environmental measurements, and emergency procedures. Here are some other achievements:

  • Contact forum
    Following Chernobyl, a Nordic contact forum for information specialists has been set up. The forum organizes meetings with representatives from media to enhance their understanding of nuclear questions and risks. Its working group, with participants from the authorities, establishes Nordic contacts which now have a high priority in nuclear emergencies.

  • NKS reports
    One main category of achievements is the material which has been made available - as a background material - for the regulatory authorities through different NKS projects. As an example, based on a post-Chernobyl project, there is now a system for transfer, among the Nordic networks of gamma measuring stations, of data about radioactivity in the atmosphere. There is also a catalogue with reactor data that helps analyzing threats from nuclear installations in neighbouring countries.

  • Networks
    Apart from such identifiable, substantial results as those mentioned, a major outcome of many years of cooperation is the contact net of authorities and experts which has proved its value many times, not least in the difficult days of the Chernobyl crisis.

  • International weight
    The cooperation and the "aura" that surrounds it has helped the Nordic countries to make their voice heard internationally in questions about nuclear safety and radiation protection.

6. Some failures 


Not everything can succeed in a cooperation scheme that is not based on integration but on case by case cooperation, which is typical for most activities in the Nordic setup.

Thus, in 1968 there was a major political attempt to establish what would have corresponded to a Nordic common market, the NORDEK plan. As part of this, attempts were made to create a Nordic reactor vendor and to combine the nuclear research institutes into one united nuclear development center. On the industrial side this was unsuccessful because the Swedish ASEA-Atom was already too far ahead of the other countries, and on the political side the plan collapsed. Instead, a Nordic Council of ministers was created.

Over the years, three separate attempts have been made to share the production of radioactive isotopes for medical use between the research reactors in the four countries, but each time it failed due to lack of sufficient commercial incentives.

When political viewpoints override technical or scientific initiatives, this may strike back on the success of cooperation. As the official attitudes to nuclear power changed in Denmark and Norway in the eighties, the countries' position in international discussions sometimes differed, for example in the London Dumping Convention.

We have also seen how authorities in the Nordic countries have taken different countermeasures in response to the Chernobyl contamination. With to-days cross-country TV and radio, this has given problems for the public opinion and harmed the confidence in the authorities.

Following Chernobyl, a "TRANSAM" project was proposed in order to verify models for long-range atmospheric dispersion. It was impossible to obtain financing, so it had to be dropped as a Nordic project. Later it was taken up by the IAEA in conjunction with other international organizations.


7. What did we learn from our specific Nordic way of working? 


If we shall try to draw some conclusions from our cooperation over the last 40 years, some factors can be identified that have been helpful in obtaining our results.

Some of them are specific for the Nordic character of our cooperation. We benefit from easy mutual communication, most of us being able to use own languages. In our countries we have had - and have - personalities with strong pro-Nordic sentiments, and our cooperation got early political support, nationally and in the Nordic Council. We were helped by a generally accepted desire for a certain independence from the great powers, and at the same time a desire to make our combined voices heard.

We have fairly unbureaucratic working habits which makes life for participants in our joint ventures easier than, e.g., in the EU. Also, we have learnt that organizational frames for the cooperation must be under constant review so that they can be adapted to changing circumstances.

A cooperation between independent institutes and authorities, such as we have them in our field, should be voluntary - not imposed. That implies that in each case there must be full national freedom to join a proposed venture or not. The matters dealt with should be in the pre-competitive stage. It is often easier to cooperate in producing surveys and drawing joint conclusions than to perform real research.

Dedicated persons, both in the participating countries and "neutral" ones are essential to look after upcoming issues and adapt them so that they will be suitable - or even attractive - for cooperation. Goodwill throughout the organizations can be encouraged if persons on several levels are engaged in some manner in the cooperation scheme. In spite of modern communication methods, the value of meeting activity should not be underestimated. Networks should be used in normal work so that they will function in emergency situations.


8. What can we contribute to the future? 


Our Nordic cooperation is continuing and moving towards to-morrow's areas of concern. The recent events that will influence future Nordic programs are, on one hand, our concern for safety in our eastern neighbouring countries and, on the other, the fact that all of our countries now join EU project activities and its nuclear safety work, although two of our countries are not members.

The sixth NKS program, to start after 1997, will certainly be marked by this development. Can the Nordic countries improve their coordination of assistance to sources of concern in the east (e.g. Ignalina)? Can we help a coming EU framework program with preprojects or test cases like our present project on an European intercalibration exercise that follows a successful Nordic experience? Can we make a contribution to a rapprochement between concepts used in nuclear safety and in radiation protection?

Our international contacts are essential for us. We are quite proud that our cooperation has international links, like the ones in the present conference. We feel that our regional scheme has much to give in the future, both for our own countries, and through the potential for impact it gives in a much larger framework.

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