Nuclear Regulation:

Efforts To Ensure Nuclear Power Plant Safety Can Be Strengthened

RCED-87-141: Published: Aug 13, 1987. Publicly Released: Sep 23, 1987.

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In response to a congressional request, GAO assessed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) efforts to provide the public with reasonable assurance that nuclear power plants operate safely, specifically how NRC: (1) minimizes the risks associated with operating the plants; (2) enforces its safety standards; and (3) finds violations of the standards.

GAO found that: (1) although the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 allows NRC to shut plants down for safety reasons, NRC lacks guidelines to determine when to shut plants down; (2) NRC ordered some plants to shut down, but did not take action on other plants with similar problems; (3) as of December 1986, NRC had a backlog of 163 unresolved generic safety issues, including 32 considered to pose a significant risk to public health and safety; (4) during fiscal years 1985 and 1986, NRC identified 41 safety issues, but resolved only 32; and (5) NRC takes from several months to 10 or more years to resolve safety issues. GAO also found that, between 1981 and 1986, NRC found 12,170 safety violations through plant inspections, but did not consolidate the regional information concerning the corrective actions the utilities took for program management purposes.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: NRC believes it already has a formal and deliberative process for making decisions that a plant should be shut down, even in major safety situations where a utility may not recognize that a shutdown is appropriate. NRC does not want to develop guidelines specifically setting forth criteria that the public and utilities could look at to determine the basis upon which plants would be shut down.

    Recommendation: The Chairman, NRC, should develop guidelines to use as a framework in deciding the types and degree of safety problems that constitute undue risk such that NRC would consider shutting a plant down.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: NRC does not believe initiating an annual consolidation of corrective actions would enhance its ability to ensure the continued protection of public health and safety. Although GAO pointed out advantages to consolidating information on corrective actions taken by utilities, NRC plans on relying on its system that is already in place to provide it information on the status of corrective actions.

    Recommendation: The Chairman, NRC, should develop annually consolidated information for all operating plants showing the status of corrective actions planned or taken by the utilities.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission


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