Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

Strategy Needed to Develop a Risk-Informed Safety Approach

T-RCED-99-71: Published: Feb 4, 1999. Publicly Released: Feb 4, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the actions the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has taken to move from its traditional regulatory approach to an approach that considers risk in conjunction with engineering analyses and operating experience-termed risk-informed regulation, focusing on the: (1) issues that NRC needs to resolve to implement a risk-informed regulatory approach; (2) status of NRC's efforts to make two of its oversight programs--overall plant safety assessments and enforcement-risk-informed; and (3) major management challenges that NRC faces.

GAO noted that: (1) since July 1998, NRC has accelerated some activities needed to implement a risk-informed regulatory approach and has established and set milestones for others; (2) however, NRC has not resolved the most basic of issues; (3) that is, that some utilities do not have current and accurate design information for their nuclear power plants, which is needed for a risk-informed approach; (4) also, neither NRC nor the nuclear utility industry have standards or guidance that define the quality or adequacy of the risk assessments that utilities use to identify and measure the risks to public health and the environment; (5) furthermore, NRC has not determined if compliance with risk-informed regulations will be voluntary or mandatory for the nuclear utility industry; (6) more fundamentally, NRC has not developed a comprehensive strategy that would move its regulation of the safety of nuclear power plants from its traditional approach to an approach that considers risk; (7) in January 1999, NRC released for comment a proposed process to assess the overall safety of nuclear power plants; (8) the process would establish generic and plant-specific safety thresholds and indicators to help NRC assess overall plant safety; (9) NRC expects to phase in the new process over the next 2 years and evaluate it by June 2001, at which time NRC would propose any adjustments or modifications needed; (10) in addition, NRC has been examining the changes needed to its enforcement program to make it consistent with, among other things, the proposed plant safety assessment process; (11) for many years, the nuclear industry and public interest groups have criticized the enforcement program as subjective; (12) in the spring of 1999, NRC staff expect to provide the Commission recommendations for revising the enforcement program; (13) in January 1999, GAO identified major management challenges that limit NRC's effectiveness; (14) the challenges include the lack of a definition of safety and lack of aggressiveness in requiring utilities to comply with safety regulations; and (15) NRC's revised plant safety assessment and enforcement initiatives may ultimately help the agency address these management challenges and carry out its safety mission more effectively and efficiently.

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