Nuclear Safety:

Concerns With the Continuing Operation of Soviet-Designed Nuclear Power Reactors

RCED-00-97: Published: Apr 25, 2000. Publicly Released: May 5, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on Soviet-designed nuclear power reactors, focusing on: (1) how much money has been spent by the United States and other countries for assistance to improve the safety of Soviet-designed nuclear power reactors--and the types of assistance being provided--as well as planned U.S. expenditures; (2) experts' views on the impact of the assistance; (3) the status of efforts to close high-risk Soviet-designed reactors; and (4) the management of the Department of Energy's (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) safety assistance activities.

GAO noted that: (1) the United States and 20 other countries and international organizations contributed about $1.9 billion to improve the safety of Soviet-designed nuclear reactors; (2) the $1.9 billion includes contributions for improving operational safety by providing better training, procedures, and equipment and strengthening regulatory authorities; (3) the U.S. safety program, which provides most of its funding through DOE and NRC, has supplied assistance that includes safety evaluations and reactor upgrades, training, and fire safety equipment; (4) although DOE plans to complete its assistance efforts by 2005 at a projected cost of $709 million, the Commission has not determined when or at what cost it will complete its assistance efforts; (5) nevertheless, the Department of State believes that funding should continue for some time because the highest-risk reactors continue to operate; (6) nuclear safety experts from 32 countries and international organizations met in 1999 to assess the impact of the nuclear safety assistance provided to countries operating Soviet-designed reactors; (7) these experts concluded that progress has been made over the past decade in strengthening nuclear regulatory authorities, improving the operation of the nuclear reactors, and establishing safety improvement programs; (8) nevertheless, the experts maintained that further improvements are needed, particularly to strengthen the independence and effectiveness of nuclear regulatory authorities; (9) while safety improvements have been made, a major goal of the international donor community has not been realized--the permanent shutdown of the highest-risk Soviet-designed reactors; (10) although Ukraine decided to shut down one of its reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1996, the 25 reactors of greatest concern have continued to operate despite the efforts of the donor countries to obtain their closure; (11) many safety experts told GAO that countries will continue to operate these reactors as long as it is in their economic interests to do so; (12) DOE has funded several projects that may have worthwhile objectives but are not directly related to improving the safety of Soviet-designed nuclear reactors; and (13) in addition, DOE has funded several smaller projects or made other expenditures of program funds that some program officials believed were of questionable value in meeting the program's objectives.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help ensure that DOE's and NRC's nuclear safety assistance efforts are economical and efficient, the Secretary of Energy should clarify the lease arrangements between the Slavutych Laboratory and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant to ensure that the U.S. investment in the laboratory is protected to the extent possible.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The lease agreement has been exgended through 2004 and an application to transfer ownership of the building and equipment to the Slavutych Laboratory has been submitted to the Ukranian Government for approval.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that DOE's and NRC's nuclear safety assistance efforts are economical and efficient, the Secretary of Energy should ensure to the extent possible that, when cash is paid for services or deliverables, organizations in the Newly Independent States have internal controls to adequately document the flow of cash from its receipt to its final disposition.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has strengthened its controls and procedures regarding cash payments. Western style accounting systems are being implemented with the cooperation of host country organizations.

    Recommendation: To improve NRC's program management, the Chairman, NRC, should consistently monitor funding requirements to ensure that funds are obligated on a timely basis in accordance with the program's priorities.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC has agreed with and implemented the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve NRC's program management, the Chairman, NRC, should integrate the assistance activities of offices that implement nuclear safety assistance to avoid duplication and inefficiencies.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC agreed and has implemented the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve NRC's program management, the Chairman, NRC, should develop a strategic plan for the Commission's nuclear safety assistance activities that, at a minimum, establishes program priorities and goals, ways to measure how well the goals are being met, and timeframes for meeting the goals.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC agreed and has implemented the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the management of the nuclear safety assistance program, the Secretary of Energy should review ongoing and proposed projects and eliminate those that do not have a strong and compelling link to improving the safety of Soviet-designed nuclear power plants.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has reviewed all of its projects to ensure that they are defensible as being related to improving safety.

    Recommendation: To maximize the use of U.S. safety assistance program funds, the Chairman, NRC, should consistently monitor the funding for NRC's safety assistance program to ensure that these funds are obligated on a timely basis in accordance with the program's priorities.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC agreed and has implemented the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To maximize the use of U.S. safety assistance program funds, the Secretary of Energy should: (1) review all DOE projects with significant carryover balances and consider ways to accelerate the projects' completion, to the extent feasible; and (2) determine whether projects whose progress has been continuously slow or limited are still viable, given the program's current goals and objectives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has reviewed all of its safety projects and either sped the completion of or eliminated those with large dollar carryover balances. For those projects closed funds have been transferred to ongoing projects.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that DOE's and NRC's nuclear safety assistance efforts are economical and efficient, the Chairman, NRC, should hire in-country interpreters when feasible to do so.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC has agreed and implemented the recommendation.

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