Nuclear Regulatory Commission Briefing on

Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research Programs and Performance

May 10, 2001



My name is Edwin Lyman. Since 1995, I have been the Scientific Director of the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) in Washington. I would like to thank the Commission for the privilege of serving on the Expert Panel and the opportunity today to present NCI's views on the future of NRC safety research.


A brief review of the early history of the NRC Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research provides useful insights for today's discussion. NCI President Paul Leventhal, as a U.S. Senate aide, helped to draft the Energy Reorganization Act (ERA) of 1974, which separated the regulatory and promotional functions of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).


The drafters of the original Senate-passed bill wanted to ensure that the NRC maintain a safety research capability that was independent of ERDA, DOE's predecessor agency. To this end, the Senate bill provided for an Office of Nuclear Safety Research within NRC, which had a broad mandate to engage in or contract for research deemed necessary for the discharge of NRC's functions. The House bill essentially provided for NRC's research needs to be met by ERDA on a reimbursable basis.


The legislation that emerged from conference established an Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research (RES), but one restricted to "confirmatory assessment" of the adequacy of NRC regulations to ensure safe operation of facilities under NRC's jurisdiction. The conference report affirmed that NRC would have an "independent" research capability, but stressed that to avoid duplicating the research conducted by ERDA, NRC should draw upon ERDA's findings.


However, confirmatory assessment was rejected three years later by Congress. Citing the findings of a Ford Foundation-sponsored report critical of the limitations on the scope of work performed by RES, Congress amended the ERA to provide for NRC research on the development of new or improved safety systems. The addition of so-called "anticipatory" research to the NRC's portfolio gave RES a mandate closer to the original intent of the Senate version of the ERA.


This historical account is noteworthy today because the independence that is so fundamental to the RES mission as originally conceived --- independence not only from DOE and licensees but also from other NRC program offices --- has been put at risk by the severe cuts in the RES budget over the last decade and an excessive focus on linking research goals to specific objectives. These developments have also adversely affected the ability of RES to carry out the important anticipatory research function specifically assigned to it by Congress in 1977.


At a time when many stakeholders perceive that industry influence over NRC regulatory activities is increasing, when formal public participation is being restricted and when there is growing pressure from Capitol Hill for NRC to expedite license renewals and the licensing of new nuclear plants, the preservation of a robust and independent RES is more critical than ever. NCI believes that most of the research projects pursued by RES are sensible and technically justified, and favors funding for many of the worthy projects that RES would like to pursue but remain unfunded. Thus we support efforts to restore the budget of RES to a level at which it can effectively perform its statutory function. But there should also be a renewed effort by NRC management to ensure that research sponsored by RES is conducted in an objective manner, and that the results of the research are freely distributed to the public without "spin."


I would like to briefly mention a few examples that illustrate the importance of maintaining an independent NRC research and testing capability. It is essential that RES be able not only to review industry-supplied data, but also to confirm such data through independent experiments or analysis when questions arise regarding the adequacy of the supplier's data. In addition to serving as an independent check, this process provides a mechanism for public access to detailed safety information that is largely deemed proprietary in industry submittals.

One example involves NRC's approval process for advanced fuel cladding types such as the niobium-containing alloys ZIRLO and M5, which are both being used in U.S. reactors today. Recently, NRC became aware of experimental data on the Russian-origin cladding E110 --- an alloy very similar in composition to ZIRLO and M5 --- indicating that E110 could become embrittled much more rapidly than standard Zircaloy during a loss-of-coolant accident (LOCA). Subsequently it was revealed that Framatome ANP (the manufacturer of M5) was aware of this data for some time but did not inform NRC, although it was performing additional tests to satisfy German regulators.


While Framatome ANP and Westinghouse (the manufacturer of ZIRLO) have now provided (largely proprietary) data to NRC that purportedly shows their alloys to perform better than E110 under LOCA conditions, the fundamental basis for this difference in performance is not understood. It appears that small differences in composition can result in significantly different cladding behavior. If this is indeed the case, then additional studies need to be performed to augment the database of clad material properties as a function of composition, for both normal and accident conditions. To this end, RES has asked the vendors for samples of both unirradiated cladding material and irradiated fuel rods for the RES-sponsored LOCA fuel testing program being conducted at Argonne National Laboratory, but at the last public meeting on this subject in February 2001, this request was not enthusiastically received by the vendors. In NCI's view, RES testing is essential for resolving this issue and restoring public confidence in the safety of these advanced cladding materials. Such testing should also become a routine part of the qualification process for new fuel types.


A related issue involves NRC's research program to support licensing of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in Duke Power's Catawba and McGuire reactors. RES Director Ashok Thadani told the Expert Panel that without the availability of data on MOX fuel performance from abroad --- data which is largely proprietary --- NRC would not have the technical basis to license MOX fuel in the U.S. However, the database contains significant gaps (for instance, concerning high-burnup fuel behavior under severe accident conditions) and its applicability to the U.S. program will be limited. Moreover, these gaps will not be closed by the fuel qualification program proposed by MOX licensee Duke Cogema Stone and Webster (DCS) and approved by DOE, which does not address severe accident or storage issues.


In a letter last year, RES sought a commitment from DOE (which is responsible for all MOX licensing costs) that samples of irradiated MOX lead test assemblies (LTAs) would be provided to RES for independent testing at Argonne, a request that DOE has denied. This denial is unacceptable because DOE arguably has a conflict of interest as a result of its deep investment in the success of the MOX program. RES does not have the authority to make its request directly to DCS. NCI urges the Commission to require NRR to make it clear to DCS that timely licensing of MOX fuel use will depend on complying with the RES request for LTA samples so that the concerns of RES can be fully resolved.


NCI does not support budget increases for all types of anticipatory research. In particular, the significant costs associated with licensing new reactor types, especially those based on innovative technologies, should be regarded as an essential component of the economic case for advanced reactor deployment. Thus neither taxpayers nor NRC licensees that have no interest in advanced reactors should be obligated to shoulder these costs. Also, difficult policy issues arise with regard to the extent to which RES should provide technical guidance for developers of new reactor designs to expedite future licensing, given the significant overlap between the work that RES would have to perform to support such efforts and the fundamental research that should be considered part of new reactor development. The basic separation of nuclear regulation from development, which is the cornerstone of the ERA, should not be breached.


One cannot understate the importance to RES of public confidence in its independence and objectivity. Unfortunately, RES still has a long way to go to gain this confidence. It appears that the there is a tendency on the part of some RES staff to recast research findings that do not support prior NRC decisions in a more favorable light. The example with which I am most familiar is the issue of ice condenser containment vulnerability during certain severe accidents. NCI is particularly concerned with this problem because of the plan to use MOX fuel in Duke Power's Catawba and McGuire ice condenser plants, which according to our estimates will increase the latent cancer severe accident risk to the public in the vicinity of these reactors by 25 percent.


A thorough and fair assessment of containment performance must be an essential prerequisite for NRC approval of MOX use in these plants. However, the discouraging experiences of Dr. Kenneth Bergeron, a researcher who recently retired from Sandia National Laboratories, provide evidence of ongoing interference by NRC management in RES-sponsored projects in which he has participated, including a study of ice-condenser containment safety. Dr. Bergeron was a co-author of the study (NUREG/CR-6427), performed under NRC contract and released last year after a long delay, that analyzed the response of ice condenser containments to severe accident pressure loads. Dr. Bergeron has spoken of the chilling effect that budget cuts for severe accident research in the 1990s have had on the objectivity of contracted research. Dr. Bergeron gave me permission to quote him directly here:


"In the case of the ice condenser (IC) report, I personally resisted pressure to whitewash the issues for four years...I think the IC report underestimates the safety issues substantially. Time and time again, the project staff were asked to look into issues in greater detail if there seemed a possibility that the details would reveal a rosier picture, and time and time again other issues that might yield evidence of additional problems were glossed over."


Dr. Bergeron is also very critical of the "peer review" process used by NRC to oversee severe accident research, which he has called a "perversion" of the usual protocol of scientific peer review because the biases of the peer reviewers have an undue influence on project development.


Clearly, any perception that managerial bias influences the outcome of NRC-sponsored research is very damaging to RES, as well as to the Commission, and renewed and vigilant efforts must be made to ensure that RES is insulated from political and budgetary pressure. Otherwise, RES will not be regarded by the public as a credible source of safety information, and the Commission's credibility will likewise be damaged.


In summary, a big part of the problem is the requirement that RES activities conform to the NRC performance goal of "reducing unnecessary regulatory burden." A fundamental goal of safety research is to reduce uncertainties and provide a more precise determination of safety margins. The results of such efforts may uncover margins that are unacceptably small as well as unnecessarily large. To regain public confidence in NRC's objectivity, RES must demonstrate that it is willing to deliver bad news as well as good, and the other NRC offices must be willing to respond promptly and appropriately to RES findings.


Thank you for your attention.



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