IRSN, Institut de radioprotection et de sûreté nucléaire

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Jean-Luc Pasquier

If the primary focus of IRSN's "finalised" research is to consolidate the level of its expert assessments of radiological or nuclear facilities, it also contributes to highlighting safety or prevention "laws" or "rules" concerning situations encountered in all nuclear and radiological applications.

In this context, it is as if these situations cannot be fully described from just the elementary phenomena properties and yet which are the cause, nor reduced to their simple combination alone.

This characteristic of IRSN research is found as much in work relating to reactor security in operation or to they age, as in work attempting to improve the understanding of accident dynamics and the assessment of pollutant dispersion in the environment.

This is also true for any work focusing on highlighting possible effects of low radiation doses on living organisms. This constant dialectic between the need to comprehend analytically the elementary components of situations studied and to account for them globally, involves not just calling on numerous skills in a vary wide range of disciplines referred to occasionally as fundamental, but above all knowing how to surpass them.

By its very nature therefore, because the Institute's mission is to knuckle down to the complex and multi-dimensional issue of nuclear safety, the IRSN approach to research resembles - overall - the idea put forward a few years ago by the Nobel prizewinner for physics, the American Robert Laughlin, on the emergence of the laws of nature, whereby each organisational level has its own laws and rules with no need to qualify some as more fundamental than others.

Comparison is not reason and IRSN makes no claims that its research is a prop to abandoning the old reductionist paradigm of world understanding. Which had formed the epistemological foundation for all scientific progress for centuries.

But in many respects, the IRSN research brings to light certain of these "emerging laws" applied to the specific field of nuclear and radiological risk management.

Another issue

However, whereas these safety or radiological protection rules do not immediately seem attributable to rules of physics, mechanics, chemistry or biology, nor do they know how to go beyond them. They would also not become apparent if, upstream of their pronouncement, all the elementary phenomena working towards the overall safety and radiological protection diagnosis or towards reducing the related uncertainties, had not themselves been elucidated, whereas it is not always known if the parameters studied are linked or independent.

This relative and apparent autonomy of fundamental safety and radiological protection rules compared with the basic disciplines is perhaps only the expression of the current failings of calculation tools.

In any case, one of IRSN's research issues is its ability to understand the influence of elementary factors on the sequence of events potentially resulting in a nuclear accident, to assess the respective shares and finally provide itself with the means of calculating the occurrence.

Another issue is to ensure that, if the unthinkable does happen, its consequences on the populations and more generally on the environment are limited. Some of these factors, which sometimes are not taken seriously enough in facility design, are only revealed through systematically analysed and interpreted operating feedback. Another major characteristic of the research at IRSN is found at this stage - the partial inputting of results from the expert assessment and the gaps in knowledge it shows up.

The final - and not insignificant - research engine is the result of society's ever-increasing safety requirement and a concern to incorporate nuclear activities in a logic of sustainable development: a great deal of the research work reported here attempts to respond to this preoccupation.

This research effort - and it must not flag - cannot be sustained without high quality requirements: this is the purpose of the policy of scientific and technical excellence developed since 2004, with a first report presented in 2006. This inventory has been useful in measuring the path of progress and checking that this aim for excellence has been shared by the researchers. It has also resulted in boosting the range of this policy by intensifying the assessment of the Institute's work by its peers in the scientific community, by encouraging researchers to compare notes with their counterparts in other major scientific bodies or universities and, above all, by promoting the creative spirit through recognition of exploratory research into topics not yet explicitly explored.

The objective of scientific excellence is the best guarantor of relevance and research quality at IRSN. It can also surmount the epistemological obstacles identified in his day by Gaston Bachelard as "the temptation of empiricism" or of abusive generalisation. Let those consulting this site be the judge.

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