Friday, June 17, 2011

Nuclear Regulation:

Finding the Right Balance

The recent focus on nuclear reactor regulation, both in Japan and in the US, is a reminder of just how difficult it is to find the right balance. As the Japanese now move toward their stated goal of changing their regulatory system, they should be reminded by events in the US and elsewhere that this is only the first step in a continuing process. If they need no other evidence, they can look to the recent NRC meeting on the preliminary findings of the post-Fukushima review of their own regulation of US plants.

Indeed, the role of the regulator is often an uneasy one. Those against a technology or enterprise will always feel that the regulators are not exercising enough oversight, and those in favor of it will always feel that the regulators are exercising too much oversight. One of the most educational experiences I had in my 14 years at NRC was a meeting--I have forgotten the topic--at which the industry and its opponents could agree on only one thing: that the NRC was doing it all wrong!

At the time, my temptation was to conclude that, if the parties at both extremes were unhappy with us, and for opposite reasons, maybe we were doing just the right thing! Of course, once I enunciated that theory, someone pointed out that this conclusion did not necessarily follow from the evidence, and I have since been very careful about making such statements.

However, the observation that NRC is usually a convenient target for all sides of an issue is one that has recurred repeatedly in the years since that meeting. Perhaps it is usually not so dramatic as when all parties were in the same room, but nevertheless, on issue after issue, I will read one article that claims that the NRC is soft on industry, while another claims, with equal fervor, that the NRC is regulating nuclear power to death.

The other age-old problem of regulation that we have discovered time and again is that fixing one thing sometimes exacerbates another. There are a number of examples from the annals of nuclear regulation, and I'm sure some of my readers have their favorites. Perhaps one of the easiest for a lay person to understand is that making access to portions of the plant more difficult to improve security may also make it more difficult for people to move around the plant in case of an emergency.

Thus, more is not always better in regulatory space, and one of the perennial problems of regulation is to continually refine regulation in the light of new evidence. In fact, the balance exists on several planes. One is the balance between different regulatory objectives (such as the security vs. emergency access situations noted above). Another is the balance between absolute safety and practicality. A quote I once read said that the only absolutely safe vehicle is one that has so many safety features that it is too heavy to move. So it is with nuclear power plants. The trick is to find the right mix of features that provide the necessary assurance of safety and still allow the vehicle to operate.

Regulation must also continue to evolve. It is tempting to say that, after so many years of nuclear power plant operation, we should have figured everything out. However, nuclear plants operate in a world that isn't static. As noted, sometimes we make a change in the plants that have unexpected consequences. Other times, things outside the plant change. 9/11 is perhaps the biggest external change agent we have faced in recent years, but there have been others.

So perhaps the biggest message for the Japanese government is that changing the regulatory system, while a necessary step, will not alone solve the problem.


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