Power struggle

19 March 2020

For the last 18 months there has been a debate playing out in the US, in its nuclear sector, halls of power and media. Is the government rolling back on nuclear security? Andrew Tunnicliffe speaks with NRC’s David McIntyre and WINS’ Roger Howsley about the criticism unleashed at proposals for the Reactor Oversight Process Enhancement Project and what they mean in reality.

SINCE THE MIDDLE OF 2019 the US nuclear power sector has been attracting headlines, and not for the best of reasons. In a joint statement in July, US Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee said they were “disturbed” by proposals to shake up security requirements at the nation’s nuclear power plants. “It would be a mistake to attempt to make nuclear power more cost-competitive by weakening NRC’s (Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s) vital safety oversight,” the group said. They went on to suggest the proposals were “cutting corners” on what they described as “critical safety measures”. They concluded by warning that doing so “may eventually lead to a disaster”.

Their stinging criticism was the response to proposals to reshape the regulatory framework around the safety and security of the country’s nuclear power estate. Among the proposals were plans to reduce the number of inspections, reduce the need for communication with local people and authorities in the event of incidents, and — most concerning to critics — a cut in the number of mock raids by specialist personnel, known as ‘force-on-force’.

That, at least, was the narrative offered by critics. Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists told U.S. News & World Report: “I know how easy it is to cause a Fukushima-scale meltdown, radiation release or worse, and the timelines are very short. You don’t have much room to manoeuvre if you misjudge what the threat is.” It was clear he was not in favour. He responded to suggestions by the industry that an easing of inspections would reward its “strong safety record”, by saying that would be to ignore “the cause-and-effect relationship between inspections and good performances”.

Further criticism levied at the NRC surrounded the perceived lack of transparency with which the proposals had been presented and debated. Many argued there had not been enough public consultation, a claim the NRC firmly rejected when talking with NEI. The regulator’s David McIntyre says: “The Reactor Oversight Process (ROP) Enhancement Project has been conducted transparently, with monthly public meetings to discuss the staff’s work and analyses.”

Providing oversight and assessment of operating US nuclear power plants, the ROP has been a cornerstone of nuclear safety and security for 20 years, since being rolled out nationwide in April 2000. Plans to enhance it first became evident in 2018. NRC staff presented its proposals to the Commission in June the following year. “The ROP Enhancement Project is a wide-ranging effort consistent with the NRC’s current ‘transformation’ effort to become a modern, risk-informed regulator,” says McIntyre.

He adds that although some of the proposals would change the number of inspection hours at certain parts of the process, they would allow the NRC to focus more resources on risk-significant areas and less on areas with lower risk. He dismissed accusations that the plans would roll back established safety practices, saying: “The staff is confident these changes can be made without compromising public health and safety or security.”

The NRC first proposed reducing the numbers of Force-on-Force inspections in 2017 and plans were approved by the Commission later that year. Under those plans the current practice of two NRC-conducted Force-on-Force exercises will be reduced to one, as well as an enhanced NRC inspection of a licensee-conducted annual Force-on-Force exercise. Although still awaiting final approval, McIntyre is confident the proposals will not result in greater risk. “These changes would not make the plants more vulnerable to attack; the security baseline inspections remain, the physical security requirements remain and the licensees will still be required to maintain their currently robust security plans and capabilities under NRC regulations at 10 CFR Part 73,” he says.

Despite the criticism of some inside and outside the industry, the proposals have been largely welcomed by the sector. Roger Howsley, executive director of the World Institute for Nuclear Security, believes the move is a healthy one. “I think the key thing is that governments, regulators and the industry keep their security arrangements under review, so change is inevitable and good where it is done in a considered way,” he says.

Howsley says he has never believed that inspections are the best way to test the effectiveness of systems. “Instead, licensees should be legally required to provide annual/ periodic assurance reports that define the capabilities and performance of their security systems and the oversight by the executive/board directors, just as they do for finance to the relevant financial authority.” The Institute, he says, has done a lot of work on this and believes it to be “a very powerful mechanism” to attribute governance, ownership and accountability with the licensee, where it should be. “This doesn’t preclude inspections, just that the system doesn’t depend on them and it avoids a situation where the culture is ‘we have to do this because the regulator says so’.”

Howsley is clear that cutting the number of Force-on-Force events, along with the wider proposals contained within the ROP Enhancement Project, would not risk safety and security at US plants. Both can continue to be assured under these proposals and with these changes the industry’s exemplary safety record can continue, he believes.

Although many have raised concerns, and some politicians suggested disaster could be looming, historically the sector does have an enviable record. “There has never been a successful armed attack on a nuclear power plant that has led to a radiological emergency in the sector’s history, nor has a dirty bomb ever been detonated,” says Howsley. In the last 50 years terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities have resulted in six deaths worldwide, largely in Europe and mostly on construction sites.

For this seasoned professional of the industry, looking at how the sector and threats it faces evolved, and adapting to meet the challenges, can offer huge opportunity to innovate. “We will likely see advanced technologies being used in the nuclear sector as they will in other sectors; autonomous security systems and drone surveillance etc. Think about what a mobile or static guard does and then see how technology can support or replace the human role,” he says. It is crucial a modern regulatory regime looks forward, he says, because new technologies will have an impact and so will the growing use of small modular and advanced reactors.

Howsley says current security spend is dominated by physical protection and guarding, when most professionals think the growing threat is from cybersecurity and not an armed assault. “What would an armed assault achieve?

If the objective is to kill people than there are very soft targets available.” As the threats change, so must the skillset of those appointed to protect nuclear infrastructure.

“We need a new breed of security manager that comes with a diverse background and one that isn’t just focused on physical protection,” he continues. “We need thinkers and plenty of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professionals to think how better to design- out security vulnerabilities, integrate cyber and physical protection, integrate safety and security, identify leading security metrics, communicate with staff as equals and address the gender imbalance and ex-police and military mentality that pervades at present.” Continually evaluating the regimes in place, as in the NRC proposals, provides an opportunity to assess whether the sector, and its governance, are sufficient for today and ready for tomorrow.

It is clear some of the industry’s most reputable and longstanding voices see the proposals as a timely shift, reflecting the evolution of the sector and the threats it faces over the last two decades. Indeed it presents the potential to modernise; if efficiencies are found and money saved along the way then it is a win for all concerned, including power consumers.

“We all know that the threat is evolving, and so must the security systems within an overall integrated risk management system; this is fundamental,” says Howsley. “In my experience the US nuclear sector has a very mature, very effective and well considered security regime.” McIntyre says the NRC is always looking for ways to make its inspections more efficient and effective in ensuring safety and security at licensed facilities. “We perform our own assessments, and we welcome suggestions from industry and the public about how we might improve our processes,” he says.

Despite welcoming the proposals, Howsley, however, concludes with a warning for the global industry: “I think there is a fundamental weakness in the nuclear sector and that is that the IAEA has no authority to effectively oversee security in the nuclear sector. There are reasons for this, but they are outdated arguments if people and politicians really want to encourage the use of nuclear energy to help mitigate climate change.” He says nuclear has to adopt the norms of international oversight and reporting. “In practical terms it would be a small step, but governments have resisted the change and it has huge detrimental effect on public confidence in nuclear power.”

Author information: Andrew Tunnicliffe is a freelance writer and editor

Security gates at US nuclear plant (Photo courtesy US Nuclear Regulatory Commission)
Security guard at US nuclear plant (Photo courtesy US Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

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