Nuclear Power Safety:

Chernobyl Accident Prompted Worldwide Actions but Further Efforts Needed

NSIAD-92-28: Published: Nov 4, 1991. Publicly Released: Dec 3, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on: (1) the nature and extent of international organizations' efforts to strengthen their responses to nuclear emergencies; (2) current efforts of the U.S. government and international organizations to address nuclear safety problems; and (3) efforts to achieve greater international nuclear power plant safety.

GAO found that: (1) after the Chernobyl accident, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) member states adopted two conventions to enhance international cooperation through timely notification and emergency assistance; (2) despite improvements, serious nuclear safety problems still exist at Soviet-designed nuclear power plants; (3) IAEA, its member states, the Nuclear Energy Agency, and nuclear industry organizations exchange operational safety information to help prevent accidents, but information on safety-related incidents at reactors in foreign countries is not made available to the public; (4) no agreement exists to make compliance with nuclear safety standards mandatory; (5) adherence to IAEA safety standards is voluntary, and the United States believes that mandatory compliance infringes on national sovereignty; (6) IAEA and other international organizations developed programs to improve nuclear power plant safety and minimize dangers from radioactive contamination; and (7) IAEA conducts Operational Safety Review Team (OSART) missions to inspect and assess nuclear power plant safety and offer suggestions for improvement, but since such reviews occur only at the host country's request, IAEA has reviewed only 15 percent of the world's operating power reactors.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The State Department does not agree with the recommendation. Instead, State says it supports the establishment of an international safety convention that would codify the basic elements of an effective nuclear safety regime for parties to the convention. State supports the idea of a convention based on principles rather than standards. GAO followed up on the approach. In a May 14, 1993 report (GAO/RCED-93-153), GAO reported on progress toward reaching agreement on an international convention to improve nuclear reactor safety. A preliminary draft of the convention has been developed but discussions are continuing, and when the final convention text will be completed and presented to international atomic energy agency member states for signature is uncertain.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State, in cooperation with IAEA member states, should promote the adoption of uniform and higher levels of safety standards for nuclear power plants. The present international climate may propel IAEA member states into adopting binding standards. The Secretary of State should, therefore, reassess the U.S. position against mandatory compliance with safety standards.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: State does not support granting the IAEA authority to choose the reactors it will review or the review frequency. Regarding routine followup on IAEA operational safety review recommendations, State supports followup and says it has encouraged IAEA to do so. GAO disagrees and continues to believe that IAEA should schedule safety reviews that address the most unsafe nuclear power plants. While State has not officially approached IAEA concerning this recommendation, IAEA has undertaken more OSART reviews and is routinely following up on OSART recommendations to ascertain if they have been implemented. GAO continues to believe that IAEA should conduct OSART reviews for the most unsafe nuclear power plants. In a GAO report on IAEA to be issued shortly, GAO reaffirmed the need for IAEA to perform OSART reviews for those nuclear plants operating unsafely.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should propose to other IAEA member states that: (1) IAEA be given more discretion in selecting reactors for review under the OSART program; (2) more of those reviews be made; and (3) IAEA routinely follow up on its operational safety review recommendations to ascertain if they have been implemented.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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