Nuclear Safety: Countries' Regulatory Bodies Have Made Changes in Response to the Fukushima Daiichi Accident

GAO-14-109 Published: Mar 06, 2014. Publicly Released: Mar 11, 2014.
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What GAO Found

All the nuclear regulatory bodies in the 16 selected countries in GAO's review—13 of which currently operate nuclear power reactors and 3 of which are developing or considering developing civilian nuclear power programs—have taken steps to strengthen nuclear safety in response to the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan. Japan in particular has fundamentally restructured its nuclear regulatory framework, and 3 other countries—China, Sweden, and Vietnam—are providing additional resources to their nuclear regulatory bodies. Countries are taking steps to improve safety with a focus on considering previously unimagined accident scenarios. Specifically, regulatory bodies in several countries (e.g., Belgium, Canada, Russia, and the United States) are now planning for accident scenarios that could involve multiple reactors at a single power plant. In addition, new requirements for emergency equipment, such as backup electric generators, in case of the loss of off-site power, as occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, are an area of focus among the regulatory bodies in GAO's review.

Officials from 6 of the 13 countries with operating nuclear power reactors in GAO's review said they have automated systems for collecting and transmitting critical nuclear power plant data to the nuclear regulatory body or designated technical experts who work with the regulatory body during an accident, and officials from a seventh country said that it has plans to build such a system. Officials from 3 of the countries with automated systems, including the United States, told GAO they are considering steps to ensure their systems can operate in certain emergency conditions, such as during the loss of off-site power, but none has a specific timetable for doing so. For example, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is first completing higher priority nuclear safety enhancements before deciding whether or how to upgrade its automated system because how enhancements are done may affect how upgrades to an automated system would be implemented. By delaying its decision on upgrades to enable the system to function under emergency conditions, the system may not function when needed most—during a severe accident.

Three key international organizations—the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Association of Nuclear Operators, and the European Union— along with the Convention on Nuclear Safety, have taken steps to support nuclear regulatory bodies and help them identify the most important lessons of the Fukushima Daiichi accident and promote regulatory changes to enhance nuclear safety worldwide. For example, one key way IAEA helps countries improve nuclear safety and regulatory effectiveness is through peer review missions, which evaluate, among other things, a country's nuclear safety regulatory framework based on IAEA Safety Standards and good regulatory practices. However, according to IAEA officials, the agency does not systematically track whether the recommendations of the peer review missions are implemented by the host countries. Without this information, IAEA cannot fully determine the impact and effectiveness of the peer review missions.

Why GAO Did This Study

The March 2011 accident at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant led to a worldwide review of nuclear power programs. NRC licenses and oversees civilian nuclear reactors. The State Department coordinates policy matters with international organizations and treaties, including those dealing with nuclear safety.

GAO was asked to examine (1) the actions nuclear regulatory bodies from selected countries have taken to strengthen nuclear safety; (2) the extent to which these countries have established automated systems to collect and transmit accident data; and (3) steps international organizations have taken to support nuclear regulatory bodies and promote nuclear safety worldwide since the accident. The countries GAO selected represent a cross section of established and emerging nuclear power countries. GAO also reviewed relevant documents and interviewed or obtained information from U.S. federal agencies, 15 foreign nuclear regulatory bodies, and international organizations.

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GAO recommends (1) that State and NRC work with and encourage IAEA to systematically track the status of recommendations made by IAEA peer review missions and (2) NRC consider expediting its decision on whether or how to upgrade its automated system for transmitting key reactor data. NRC neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendations. State partially concurred with the first recommendation and had no comment on the second. GAO believes that fully implementing these recommendations would enhance nuclear safety.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of State To further promote the safety of civilian nuclear power programs worldwide by enhancing the effectiveness of nuclear regulatory bodies, the Secretary of State, in coordination with the Commission, should work with and encourage officials from IAEA to systematically track the status of the recommendations made by the Integrated Regulatory Review Service peer review missions and make this information publicly available to the extent feasible.
Closed – Implemented
Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) peer review missions are conducted by IAEA and are one of the key ways IAEA helps countries improve nuclear safety and regulatory effectiveness. IRRS mission teams include experts drawn largely from IAEA member countries' nuclear regulatory bodies. The IRRS peer review missions evaluate the operations of an IAEA Member State's (host country's) nuclear regulatory system, assessing the safety practices of the requesting country through an examination of its regulatory framework and comparing the country's practices with IAEA Safety Standards and good regulatory practices. Countries receiving the IRRS mission are typically provided with recommendations and suggestions for improvement at the conclusion of the mission. The recommendations are proposed to host countries where aspects of their regulatory system relative to the IAEA Safety Standards are missing, incomplete, or inadequately implemented. We reported in our 2014 report that, unless the IRRS host country objected, 90 days after a report's completion, a "summary report" of the IRRS review mission would be made publicly available. We also reported that, according to IAEA officials, the agency does not systematically track the status of recommendations made by IRRS missions and does not know the extent to which recommendations have been implemented by host countries unless countries have hosted follow-up missions. Follow-up missions to IRRS peer review missions are the means for informing IAEA of the progress made in implementing the original missions' recommendations. In the interest of openness, countries are encouraged to make their IRRS mission report, which may include recommendations, public. However, State noted that, in the view of IAEA, making these results public without extensive prior discussions with the IAEA Member States could be detrimental to gaining the willingness of Member States to participate in additional IRRS missions According to State, since the GAO recommendation was made State had several discussions with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna, and appropriate IAEA officials regarding the recommendation. State indicated that agency officials pressed IAEA on this recommendation repeatedly, which resulted in a change in policy, adopted in August 2016, of releasing the complete IRRS report 90 days after the IAEA officially transmitted the report to the host country, unless the host country specifically requests that it remain restricted. The report's initial distribution is restricted to the authorities concerned, the contributors to the report, and responsible IAEA staff. We consider the recommendation implemented because State did work with and encourage IAEA to make more information about IRRS recommendations publicly available and the change resulting from these discussions will provide greater public access to information regarding IRRS mission recommendations.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission To increase the likelihood of NRC's access to timely, accurate, and comprehensive information during nuclear accidents, the NRC Chairman should consider expediting NRC's decision on whether or how to upgrade the Emergency Response Data System so that it would remain functional during a severe accident.
Closed – Not Implemented
GAO recommended that NRC consider expediting NRC's decision on whether or how to upgrade the Emergency Response Data System (ERDS) so that it would remain functional during a severe accident. ERDS sends real-time, automated data on key plant parameters directly to nuclear regulatory bodies or designated technical experts in the event of an accident. NRC had, as a part of its overall response to the Fukushima Daiichi accident, decided to consider the decision on whether or how to upgrade the ERDS a Tier 3 item in its 2011 document prioritizing recommended actions to be taken in response to the accident. A Tier 3 item requires further staff study to support further action. NRC officials told us that NRC is first completing higher priority post-Fukushima nuclear safety enhancements before deciding whether or how to upgrade ERDS because how these enhancements are resolved could affect how any ERDS upgrade might be implemented. NRC stated that the basis for this decision was, among other things, that ERDS supplements other methods for obtaining information that currently exist in licensee, NRC, and state incident response plans and procedures and that there would be an adequate response to an accident involving a nuclear power facility within the United States whether or not ERDS was available to NRC and state response organizations. In conclusion, the NRC stated that the staff believes that the GAO report does not bring into question the prioritization of this issue, and that it considered the recommendation closed. As the recommendation has not been implemented by NRC it will be closed as not implemented.

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