Nuclear Regulation:

Strategy Needed to Regulate Safety Using Information on Risk

RCED-99-95: Published: Mar 19, 1999. Publicly Released: Apr 20, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO examined various issues related to the safe operation of commercial nuclear power plants, focusing on: (1) some of the challenges that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the nuclear power industry could experience in a competitive environment; (2) issues that NRC needs to resolve to implement a risk-informed regulatory approach; and (3) the status of NRC's efforts to apply a risk-informed regulatory approach to two of its oversight programs--plant safety assessments and enforcement.

GAO noted that: (1) Congress and the public need confidence in NRC's ability to ensure that the nuclear industry performs to the highest safety standards; (2) as the electric utility industry is restructured, operating and maintenance costs will affect the competitiveness of nuclear power plants; (3) competition challenges NRC to ensure that safety margins are not compromised by utilities' cost-cutting measures and that the decisions utilities make in response to economic considerations are not detrimental to public health and safety; (4) NRC has not developed a comprehensive strategy that could move its regulation of the safety of nuclear plants from its traditional approach to an approach that considers risk information; (5) in addition, NRC has not resolved certain basic issues; (6) some utilities do not have current and accurate design information for their nuclear power plants, which is needed for a risk-informed approach; (7) neither NRC nor the nuclear utility industry has standards that define the quality or adequacy of the risk assessments that utilities use to identify and measure risks to public health and the environment; (8) furthermore, NRC has not determined the willingness of utilities to adopt a risk-informed approach; (9) according to NRC staff, they are aware of these and other issues and have undertaken activities to resolve them; (10) in January 1999, NRC released for comment a proposed risk-informed process to assess the overall safety of nuclear power plants; (11) this process would establish industrywide and plant-specific safety thresholds and indicators to help NRC assess plant safety; (12) NRC expects to phase in the new process over the next 2 years and evaluate it by June 2001, at which time NRC plans to propose any adjustments or modifications needed; (13) in addition, NRC has been examining its enforcement program to make it consistent with, among other things, the proposed process for assessing plant safety; (14) the nuclear industry and public interest groups have criticized the enforcement program as subjective; and (15) in the spring of 1999, NRC staff expect to provide the Commission with recommendations for revising the enforcement program.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although NRC initially agreed on the need for a comprehensive strategy and that the strategy would describe the activities that the agency wanted to risk-inform, the actions needed to make them risk-informed, and the schedule and resources needed to accomplish the activities, it has not done so. Instead, NRC developed the Risk-Informed Regulation Implementation Plan that includes guidance to identify, prioritize, and implement risk-informed changes and identifies specific tasks and projected milestones for the tasks. In addition, NRC has said that its strategic plans, policy statements, and new planning, budgeting, and performance management process help direct agency activities and resources to the most important safety issues.

    Recommendation: To help ensure the safe operation of plants and the continued protection of public health and safety in a competitive environment, the Commissioners of NRC should direct the staff to develop a comprehensive strategy that includes but is not limited to objectives, goals, and activities, and timeframes for the transition to risk-informed regulation; specifies how the Commission expects to define the scope and implementation of risk-informed regulation; and identifies the manner in which it expects to continue the free exchange of operational information necessary to improve the quality and reliability of risk assessments.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission


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