Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Japan's Approaches to Nuclear Accidents:

Views from Inside Japan

I am a little late in reporting on a very interesting and important presentation given last month by Professor Kiyoshi Kurokawa to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) on the approaches Japan should take toward nuclear accidents.  However, I haven't seen too much on it in U.S. publications, so I think this is still worth posting.

Professor Kurokawa, who is from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, served as chairman of the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC).

One somewhat surprising thing he pointed out was that NAIIC was the first investigative committee that modern Japan had ever had for the investigation of a major accident.  By contrast, he noted that most other technologically advanced countries routinely establish such a committee whenever a major accident occurs.

He also noted that, despite past calls to review existing safety measures against tsunamis, nothing had ever been done until after this accident.  The implied reason for the lack of action was an ingrained disbelief that such a tsunami could strike and could cause such extreme consequences.  The tsunami issue, of course, goes well beyond issues related to nuclear power plants.

Professor Kurokawa then went on to enumerate some of the shortcomings he saw in the Japanese approach to nuclear safety.  Most of these are well known and have been discussed in detail in the four years since the Fukushima accident, so I won't repeat all his points.  Perhaps I can summarize his points by saying that he cited insufficient defense-in-depth and a number of other elements that I would say mainly fall under the category of a lack of safety culture.  These include lack of independence, lack of a questioning attitude, and lack of mechanisms to incorporate knowledge based on past experience.

He also laid out his recommendations for what Japan must do now.  A number of his recommendations focused on the engagement Japan needs to have with the rest of the world, both to share what Japan learns from the accident, and to benefit from what other countries have to offer.

I was particularly pleased to see that so many of his observations and recommendations reflect what others around the world, as well as in Japan, have been observing and recommending about the Japanese situation.  In particular, his observations echo what others have been saying about the importance of independence and the need for transparency, both domestically and internationally.

I know that it has been difficult for the Japanese establishment, both government and industry, to absorb these messages and to incorporate them in a culture that has historically behaved very differently.  Although many changes have been made since the accident, there is still a lot that needs to be done to assure that the changes are not simply cosmetic.  I hope the repetition of the message from a respected Japanese source will reinforce the need for true change.

***

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Nuclear Regulation, Openness and Transparency:

Answers to Some Questions

I have already reported on my visit to Japan a couple of months ago and the presentation I gave to some Japanese executives.  In that talk, I focused on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as an example of an agency that behaves in an open and independent manner.  I got a couple of interesting questions on NRC's openness and independence at the conclusion of my talk.  I tried to answer them at that meeting, but I have been wanting to expand upon my answers and share them with a wider audience.

The basic question was, "How can NRC say it is independent and open when individuals in the NRC meet privately with people in industry?"

In thinking about the question and the reason behind it, I feel that sometimes, people interpret the word independence too literally.  Especially as Japan implements the changes to the way its regulatory system works, it is important to keep several things in mind.

In fact, NRC addressed this very concern when its Principles of Good Regulation were written.  They explicitly state that "independence does not imply isolation."  Therefore, independence should not be viewed as requiring regulators to cut off all contact with the rest of the world.  Rather, it should be viewed as a process that allows regulators to have access to all information and all points of view and assures that decisions take all relevant information into account and treat it appropriately.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has a tutorial on the regulatory control of nuclear power plants on its website that gives a great explanation of regulatory independence at the NRC.  They outline 8 elements that facilitate regulatory independence (I have provided somewhat abbreviated versions of most of their descriptions of these elements):

Separation of functions:  NRC has no responsibility for promoting or developing nuclear energy, and is completely separate from government bodies having such mandates.

Political influence:  No more than three of the five NRC Commissioners can come from a single political party, and Commissioners may also only be removed for "cause."  Acceptable causes for removal are limited to inappropriate behavior, and not based on a Commissioner's viewpoints. 

Conflicts of interest:  Neither the NRC Commissioners or staff can have any financial or personal interest in organizations that may be subject to their regulatory decisions.   I would also add that neither Commissioners or the NRC staff can accept gifts, meals, or other favors from anyone subject to their regulatory decisions.

Openness:  NRC’s decision-making process is conducted in public.  The Government in the Sunshine Act requires advance public notice of meetings, with a right of attendance by interested parties. The Freedom of Information Act requires broad public access to any materials used in the decision-making process.

Reporting:  NRC provides extensive information related to all aspects of its activities and decisions to the public, media, other governmental bodies, without the need for review or clearance from any other government agency.

Budget and finance:  Almost all of NRC's budget is covered by fees paid by licensees, as authorized in an annual appropriations act by the Congress. The IAEA asserts that this "full cost recovery" approach is believed to provide at least some insulation from political pressures that could result from having its resources derived entirely from tax revenues.  (As an aside, I want to point out that the cost recovery provision was not instituted for this reason, and I think the pros and cons of this provision could be debated--but that is not the subject of this discussion.)

Technical capabilities:  NRC has a large staff with a high degree of technical competence that  covers cover a wide range of technical areas.  This gives them adequate scientific, engineering, management, financial and legal expertise to regulate a complex technology like nuclear power, and assures that they can assess information provided by licensees independently and competently.

Oversight mechanisms:  NRC is subject to several layers of review and oversight. These include the Office of Inspector General (an independent, internal body), Congressional oversight, and reviews of NRC decisions by the courts. 

The IAEA discussion notes that these measures, taken together, are designed to help assure that safety decisions are not influenced by political, economic or social considerations.  Having such assurance   helps maintain public confidence in the safety of nuclear energy, which is critical to the continued use of nuclear power in democratic societies.

Tellingly, the IAEA list is preceded by a discussion saying that it is somewhat difficult to "define" regulatory independence, and followed by a discussion that acknowledges that the system is not perfect.  I think these comments reflect the dilemma I felt when tried to address the question in a public forum.

There is always a balance.  I have to admit that, on the surface, someone who sits alone in an ivory tower and doesn't talk to anyone else clearly cannot be influenced by anyone else.  That is easy to see.  Once someone meets with other people, it is much harder to be sure that they are not unduly or inappropriately influenced by others. However, if they do not meet with other people, they will not have all the facts to allow them to make good decisions about complex and difficult issues.  The two needs, independence and access to information, must both be satisfied. 

In the end, independence without isolation is achieved by a variety of checks and balances designed to help assure that NRC staff and Commissioners can obtain all the information they need, but that their decisions remain independent and technically sound. 

***

Friday, April 17, 2015

Today's Paper Reactors:

Rickover was Right

The news this week that Russia is postponing work on its Gen IV BN-1200 reactor, along with reports of new problems at the already much delayed construction of Areva's EPR at Flamanville--this time, anomalies in the composition of the steel in certain parts of the reactor vessel--and a history of delays in the construction of the EPR at Olkiluoto, Finland, highlights yet again the wisdom of Admiral Hyman Rickover when he spoke of the difference between real reactors and "paper reactors."

I have referred to this quote several times in previous blogs, so I think it is high time I provided the full quote and a link to an original source.  This quote originates in a June 5, 1953 document by Rickover, which he read as part of his testimony before Congress, published in AEC Authorizing Legislation: Hearings Before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (1970), p. 1702: 

An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose. (7) Very little development will be required. It will use off-the-shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.

On the other hand a practical reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.

(The astute reader will notice that the term Rickover originally used was "academic reactors," but the term "paper reactors" seems to have become popularized in the intervening years.  Witness that the term paper reactors gets almost 15 million hits on Google, while the term academic reactors gets 720,000 hits.)

The reality is that many large-scale projects seem to have construction delays and cost overruns.  The last big example of that I'm aware of was the construction of the facilities for the Olympics in the United Kingdom, which I previously discussed.  And new technologies always seem to have some unexpected hurdles to overcome as well.  How many new, advanced cars and gadgets of all types have failed to live up to expectations?  Couple new and large, and you have a "perfect storm" of conditions that lead to delays and cost overruns.

I am not saying this to make excuses and justify all the delays and cost increases.  I am just trying to urge more attention to try to anticipate problems as much as is possible, and more caution about what we even appear to promise.  The current project delays in the news are not the first and will not be the last.  We all should remember that every large, new project looks perfect on paper, and turning a paper reactor into a real one is not an easy task.     

***

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Nuclear Anniversaries--April:

Another Exceptional Month

In this blog, I continue the series I started late last year of highlighting important events in the history of nuclear power that occurred in the month of April.  These same events are covered chronologically in my book, Nuclear Firsts:  Milestones on the Road to Nuclear Power Development

April 3, 1965:  First spacecraft powered by a nuclear reactor (SNAP-10, U.S.)

April 4, 1984:  First power reactor on the African continent (Koeberg, South Africa)

April 9, 2009:  First operation of a nuclear reactor under a renewed operating license (Oyster Creek, New Jersey)

April 10, 1953:  Establishment of first industry association for nuclear technology (Atomic Industrial Forum, Washington, DC)

April 15, 1957:  First reactor to supply electricity off-site.  Also the first pressurized water reactor brought on-line, the first nuclear power plant containment structure, and teh first use of stainless steel cladding (SM-1, Fort Belvoir, Virginia)

April 15, 1960:  First privately financed "full-scale" reactor to operate (Dresden 1, Morris, Illinois)

April 22, 1966:  First commercial, purpose-built facility for reprocessing civilian nuclear fuel (West Valley Reprocessing Facility, Ashford, New York)

April 22, 1986:  First geologic repository to receive a license for long-term storage of radioactive waste (Morsleben Repository for Radioactive Waste, Germany)

Sadly, the last event of the month is the April 26, 1986 accident at Chernobyl in what was then the Soviet Union (now Ukraine), which was the first accident at a large power reactor with offsite effects, immediate and delayed deaths, and environmental contamination.

Once again, the list is impressive for its breadth--from underground to outer space, from nuclear plants in their infancy to their "mature years," and more.  And two events on April 15--something to think about as you work on those income tax returns!


***

Monday, March 30, 2015

Octave Du Temple:

Some Personal Recollections

 I was saddened to hear, earlier in the month, that Octave Du Temple, the first Executive Director of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), died on March 7.  I have been trying to wait until an obituary was published to which I could link for a fuller account of his career, but I do not want to wait any longer.  A short bio appears on the ANS website, and a fuller story about his career, written about 5 years ago, appears on the website of Michigan Technical University (MTU), his alma mater.

Neither of these articles touch on the huge influence he had on the lives and careers of so many ANS members and others during the course of his tenure as ANS Executive Director.  I am sure that many stories of his influence will be told in the coming months as we all process the fact that he is no longer here to advise and guide us--and yes, occasionally to push and prod us.  This is my story.  

I first met Octave as a young professional, just out of graduate school.  To tell the truth, my meeting  him, and in a sense, much of my career, was shaped by a small, trivial thing--a pink badge.  As I've previously recounted, ANS, in the early 1970s, used pink badges for spouses of registrants at ANS conferences.  The first ever paper I was scheduled to present at a professional conference was at an ANS meeting in Washington, DC, where we lived, so of course, I invited my husband.  He did not like wearing a pink badge, and he wanted me to do something about it.

Taking on the establishment was not exactly my forte in those days, but I finally decided that I should start by doing a survey to convince the ANS management that there were other female members of the ANS, and that meant they might want to come up with a slightly more gender neutral badge (although I don't think we used words like "gender neutral" back then).

To make a long story short--or at least, shorter--getting ANS to support the survey brought me to his attention and led to an enduring friendship.  (And, yes, ANS ditched the pink badge.)  Octave had a unique way of providing guidance and assistance, whether it was for the survey or for other things I tackled later.  "You see," he'd say conspiratorially, "They're going to think--or say--this, so what we want to do is..."  And he would then outline some steps I should take, make some phone calls himself, or otherwise grease the skids.

It was through him that I made most of my initial contacts with the icons of the Japanese nuclear establishment, contacts that have, in many cases, endured to this day, either with the individuals he originally introduced me to, or with the people they, in turn, introduced me to.  The amazing thing was that I hadn't even asked him for help.  I had simply mentioned that I was planning a trip to Japan, and the next thing I knew, he had handed me a list of people in Japan that "you really ought to meet," and had called them to let them know I'd be contacting them.

He accompanied the first ANS delegation to China in 1983, which I was fortunate to join, and there, I also connected with many of his Chinese contacts.  His interests and knowledge extended well beyond the nuclear field.  He knew I was Jewish, and as we traveled overnight by train across China, I recall him coming into the cabin where my husband and I were staring into the darkness beyond our window to point out that we were passing Kaifeng, which had been the site of a small community with ancient, but mysterious, Jewish roots.

Over the years, we had conversations about many matters--ANS activities, of course, but also more general nuclear matters, and some non-nuclear matters as well.  I learned bits and pieces about his background, some of which are alluded to in the MTU link.  One thing that always impressed me is how, even many years later, he remained grateful to the people who gave him assistance early in his career.  He knew, for example, that I knew Manson Benedict, who had headed the Nuclear Engineering Department at MIT when I was a student there, so made a point to tell me that Manson's family held a special place in his heart for the scholarship that had enabled his education. 

He was also ahead of his times in many ways, and once told me that he was happy he was still the Executive Director when the first woman was elected president of ANS (Gail de Planque, who served as president in 1988-89). 

He influenced me in many ways, large and small, directly and indirectly.  I attended one event where he was called to the stage to make some remarks.  He pointedly walked to the side of the lectern on the stage instead of staying behind it, telling the audience that, being short in stature, he felt disconnected from them if he stood behind a box.  I took that observation to heart when I began to make a lot of presentations, and I have regularly driven conference organizers crazy as I insist that I don't want a microphone that pins me behind the lectern.

In fact, at one point, perhaps noticing how strong Octave's influence was on me, my husband jokingly started referring to him as "Uncle Octave."  I thought that was rather fitting, as he seemed to deal with me and so many others in the ANS as a kind uncle trying to provide help and guidance.

Although Octave retired more than 20 years ago, we kept in touch for quite some time via occasional e-mails and holiday cards.  In recent years, his replies dropped off, although a couple of years ago, in response to a card I had sent him, he sent me an e-mail to remind me to spell his name with a capital 'D' rather than a small 'd.'

So, even though I haven't seen him for a number of years now, I still feel a deep sense of personal loss knowing he is gone.  RIP, Uncle Octave.  

***
 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Nuclear News from Japan, Part 2:

An Interesting Rumor

In my last blog, I reported on some of my observations during my recent meetings in Japan.  In this blog, I will continue my report.

I have many friends and acquaintances in Japan, both inside and outside the nuclear field.  This wide circle of friends sometimes gives me an opportunity to get insights into non-nuclear aspects of Japanese society, or to get views of nuclear issues from a Japanese perspective outside the industry.

My recent trip to Japan gave me such an opportunity.  At this point, I would have to classify what I learned as unsubstantiated.  Still, I think it is worth mentioning my conversation in this forum.

Over lunch one day during the trip, one of my acquaintances from outside the nuclear field, after pumping me for my views on various aspects of nuclear power, suddenly turned to the subject of Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the support he has expressed for the reopening of some of Japan's idled nuclear power plants.

This acquaintance noted that Abe was very pro-nuclear.  However, he said, there are local elections scheduled in the coming months, and furthermore, the Prime Minister is putting forward some controversial proposals to amend the Japanese constitution to modify the provision that "renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation" and promises that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained."

Since nuclear power is very unpopular in Japan at the moment, and since Abe's Liberal Democratic Party needs the support of other parties to pass this amendment, he opined that Abe might want to have nuclear power keep a low profile until after the elections and after the constitutional amendments are finalized.

Hence, despite some approvals for restarts from Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), my friend suggested that any actual restarts might be delayed until after these issues were resolved.

I want to hasten to say that he was unclear on whether this was his personal view or a widespread view, whether there were any signals from the Abe administration to support such a view, or how such delays might be assured.  (There are opportunities for delay in the local approval requirements, but my understanding is that there are differing views in different local jurisdictions.)

My friend does dabble in Japanese politics, so he certainly knows more than I do about such matters.  However, at this point, I have no other educated views on the subject.  Therefore, I am only passing this information on as a factor that Japan watchers may want to keep in mind as events unfold in Japan in the coming months.

***

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Nuclear News from Japan:

Several Perspectives

I just returned from a couple of weeks in Japan, where I had the opportunity to meet with a number of people, both in and out of the nuclear field.  One highlight was that I was invited to give a presentation to a group of industry executives.  The talk was scheduled at what turned out to be a pretty eventful time.

In my presentation, I was asked to cover several subjects that were of particular interest to Japan in their post-Fukushima environment.  These included the US actions, both by the regulator and by industry, following Three Mile Island, and the efforts in the US to improve the capacity factor of operating nuclear power plants.  I was also asked how public confidence was rebuilt after TMI.

To address these questions, I had prepared a talk that touched on a number of areas, among them, the evolution of the Principles of Good Regulation in the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  The presentation particularly focused on the issues of independence and openness.  

Just two days before I delivered my talk, the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) posted on their webpage a report from their international advisory group.  The advisory group is made up of former regulators from several countries, including Richard Meserve, a former chairman of the USNRC and current chairman of the IAEA Nuclear Safety Group; Michael Weightman, a former executive head of the British Office for Nuclear Regulation; and Claude Lacoste, a former chairman of France's Nuclear Safety Authority.

The report from the group specifically expressed a concern that a mandatory review of the performance of the NRA could lead to a loss of independence of the agency.  The news hit the front page of the Japan Times the morning I was scheduled to speak.

When the NRA was started, the enabling legislation provided for a review of the operation after three years of existence with a proviso to consider placing it under the Cabinet Office.  While the advisory group welcomed a review of the NRA's performance, they expressed concern that that the potential for the agency to be brought under the Cabinet Office could subject the agency to political interference, and could risk undermining its independence.  They noted that this independence is crucial to the effort to restore public confidence in nuclear power. 

I had already planned to address the subject of regulatory independence in my talk, but this timely announcement made the presentation seem particularly in tune with the news of the day.  I was able to refer to the announcement and to discuss political independence very specifically.  I also discussed independence from the industry, and the difference between independence and isolation.   

In addition, I addressed industry behavior, particularly the problems that arise when operators try to hide problems, whether from the regulator or from the public.  I didn't refer to any particular incident, but I was aware of past attempts to present a positive "face" to the world--often called tatemae in Japan--and knew this was an important issue.  

Thus, I was very disappointed to discover that the news just a couple of days after my talk contained a report that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) had just announced a possible leak of contaminated rainwater that it had known about since last May.  Unfortunately, even if the leak is minor, such behavior is counterproductive to the efforts in Japan to rebuild public confidence.

I came away from Japan with the feeling that there is still much to be done there to change the institutions and the behaviors of the nuclear community in a way that will truly assure a higher level of performance and that can ultimately help rebuild public confidence.  

***