Another institute that should get a lot of credit for improving our nuclear program since the Three-Mile Island accident is the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). They do periodic evaluation and assessment of nuclear power plants around the country in terms of personnel training, human performance and some technical-related issues, and they share this information within the nuclear industry. This has been helpful in improving the nuclear power industry's overall safety. However, there has been some criticism of that. Because they were formed and are primarily funded by the nuclear industry, their information is not shared with outsiders. Not surprising, because they are showing their dirty laundry to this organization.
How does a risk-based approach to nuclear safety work?
You do a quantitative risk analysis, sometimes called a probabilistic risk analysis. The U.S. introduced this approach with the WASH-1400, or the "Reactor Safety Study," report produced in 1975 for the Nuclear Regulatory Committee under the leadership of Norm Rasmussen, an M.I.T. professor at the time. [The report considered what might happen during a serious nuclear reactor accident, the radiological consequences of these events, and the probability of these events taking place.]
One of the reasons to use risk-based analysis is to save money and to make regulation more reasonable. The risk-based approach gained some popularity during the administration of George W. Bush. They wanted to get away from the heavy hand of the regulator. But this risk-based approach for safety decision-making is very controversial. People like me question its robustness when quantifying the contributions of human and organizational error to failures in the nuclear industry.
What is the alternative to a risk-based approach?
By comparison, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration follows an absolute decision-making model, which requires checks of passenger aircraft at prescribed periods. One of these checks comes every 12 to 18 months, after a specific number of flight hours. During this inspection, they take the aircraft to a maintenance hangar, strip it down, and have to replace some parts based on the number of hours of flight.
Does the IAEA get involved with evaluating nuclear plant safety?
I have been very critical for the past 20 years of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In fact, I gave testimony about them to the U.S. Commission on Improving the Effectiveness of the United Nations. At that time, I questioned IAEA's safety-related work. You have to understand that IAEA's primary mission is to be a custodian of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It was meant to safeguard the nuclear technology of any given country and make sure it is not being converted into nuclear weapons. The more recent safety and technology transfer functions of the IAEA are appendages for this organization.
What power does the IAEA have over nuclear plant operations?
IAEA is by its nature a multi-lateral international governmental organization. It is governed by its member states, so it is always on their leash and is not an independent international organization. It has to always, for lack of a better term, appease the member states. At the time of the 1999 Tokaimura nuclear accident in Japan, many people wanted to rank that accident as a 5 or a 6 [on a 7-level scale] on the IAEA's International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES), but IAEA ranked it as a 4. When Japan's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Plant was damaged by an earthquake in 2007, again the IAEA's assessment of the situation was seen as appeasing the nuclear power industry and the government. That shows you how the IAEA is not very aggressive in promoting safety. When it comes to safety, I respect [the] IAEA but I don't trust their independence.