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!