No complacency about safety of nuclear plants

September 26, 1997|By Forrest J. Remick

THE SAFETY RECORD of nuclear power plants in the United States is impressive.

A steady reduction in the number of significant events at America's nuclear plants, a dropping workplace accident rate and far fewer unplanned automatic plant shutdowns since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 all appear to reflect a new era of increased attention to nuclear safety.

Even plants on the Nuclear Regulator Commission's ''watch list'' of those requiring increased regulatory attention perform better today than plants ranked best by the NRC a decade ago.

Utilities are particularly pleased that improved safety at nuclear plants has gone hand in hand with good economic performance. The median capability factor -- a measure of reliability at nuclear plants -- has gone up six years in a row and now stands at 82.6 percent.

As states move to deregulate power markets, utilities can be expected to make full use of nuclear power to produce electricity that's competitively priced.

Yet for an industry that's often misunderstood, this is precisely the moment to guard against complacency on safety.

Although our system for assuring the safe operation of nuclear power plants has been remarkably successful -- emulated worldwide -- the way it's implemented could be improved significantly.

That's particularly true of the NRC's regulations, which were largely written to regulate the design and initial licensing of nuclear plants, but have been twisted and contorted to fit the operation of the plants. In some cases, the requirements are inconsistent and needlessly burdensome.

Compounding the problem is continued back-fitting of requirements for the plants through the imposition of regulatory changes and interpretations. This often occurs without formal rule-making or comparing the safety benefits to the cost. Consequently, there has been much confusion over regulatory requirements, with differences over what might be necessary to ensure safety.

Worse, the recent emphasis on blind adherence to confusing regulation is, in some cases, diverting the attention of plant personnel from more safety-related activities. It's resulting in reduced respect for the regulatory process. Rather than increasing or even maintaining nuclear plant safety, this trend may result in reduced attention to safety.

For example, strict adherence to a plant's final safety analysis report often requires plant personnel to demonstrate compliance minute detail, even though such documentation may have no direct bearing on safety. This is particularly true at older nuclear plants.

Three Mile Island

As always, the story starts with the Three Mile Island accident. In TMI's aftermath, the NRC issued a spate of new safety requirements. While generally well-intended, some of the requirements were not well thought out. Some improved safety; others did not. The end result was that operating the plants became more complex and difficult. So, the question arose, ''How safe is safe enough?''

To its credit, the NRC responded by developing safety goals for the operation of nuclear plants. Although the goals were officially released in 1986, they have yet to be fully implemented. They should be.

A good start would be the increased use of computer-based analyses of each plant. Known as probabilistic safety analyses, these provide guidance as to the most significant safety risks at a plant, thereby providing plant personnel and regulators with a valuable tool to zero in on what's important.

The safety analyses would permit the NRC to shift from a prescriptive approach to regulation, which was based on the best engineering judgments of 30 to 40 years ago, to one that is more risk-informed and performance-based.

Instead of an emphasis on strict compliance with rules that sometimes have little real bearing on safety, the NRC could increase the use of probabilistic safety analysis in combination with the safety goals to judge whether a plant is being operated safely.

A pilot project will test the use of this regulatory approach at three nuclear plants. The NRC needs to provide oversight.

Congressional critics of nuclear power are putting predictable pressure on the NRC to continue prescriptive regulation as usual. But it's time for the NRC to stand up. We need a more rational approach to nuclear safety.

Forrest J. Remick was a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1989 to 1994.

Pub Date: 9/26/97

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