oversight

Nuclear Safety: The Convention on Nuclear Safety

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-03-17.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                    United States General Accounting Office

GAO                 Testimony
                    Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate




For Release
on Delivery
Expected at
                    NUCLEAR SAFETY
2 p.m. EST
Wednesday
March 17, 1999
                    The Convention on Nuclear
                    Safety
                    Statement of Ms. Gary L. Jones, Associate Director,
                    Energy, Resources, and Science Issues,
                    Resources, Community, and Economic
                    Development Division




GAO/T-RCED-99-127
    Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee: We are here today to
    provide information on the Convention on Nuclear Safety—a multilateral
    treaty to improve civil nuclear power safety. Our statement today
    summarizes (1) the Convention’s scope and objectives, (2) the process for
    reviewing compliance with the Convention, (3) the dissemination of
    information related to the Convention’s proceedings, and (4) the costs to
    implement the Convention. We have issued two reports that track the
    Convention’s development and implementation.1

    In summary, Mr. Chairman:

•   The Convention on Nuclear Safety, which focuses on civilian nuclear
    power reactors, is viewed by the United States as one of the chief policy
    instruments to encourage countries with Soviet-designed nuclear reactors
    to improve the safety of their reactors. The Convention seeks to achieve
    its safety objectives through countries’ adherence to general safety
    principles, such as establishing an independent body to oversee safety,
    rather than binding technical standards. The Convention does not provide
    sanctions for noncompliance nor require the closing of unsafe nuclear
    reactors.
•   The Convention’s peer review process is intended to establish a forum
    where groups of countries will comment on reports that are
    self-assessments of their nuclear programs and thereby encourage
    countries to improve the safety of these programs. However, the
    Convention does not specify the form and content of the peer review
    process nor the quality of countries’ reports; therefore, it is unclear how
    peer pressure will accomplish change or even whether sufficient
    information will be contained in the reports.
•   Although public dissemination of information about the countries’
    progress in meeting the terms of the Convention can play a role in
    influencing compliance, it is uncertain how much information from the
    peer review meetings will be available to the public. Nuclear Regulatory
    Commission (NRC) officials told us that the Convention does not
    specifically provide for the kind of openness that they would prefer, but
    they believe that over time, more information will be made available to the
    public.
•   In January 1997, we reported that the United States estimated that it could
    spend up to $1.1 million through fiscal year 1999 to prepare for and attend
    the first review meeting. However, according to an NRC official, the actual
    costs for this time period will be significantly less because U.S. officials

    1
     Nuclear Safety: Progress Toward International Agreement to Improve Reactor Safety
    (GAO/RCED-93-153, May 14, 1993) and Nuclear Safety: Uncertainties About the Implementation and
    Costs of the Nuclear Safety Convention (GAO/RCED-97-39, Jan. 2, 1997).



    Page 1                                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-127
                        have not participated in the full range of meetings and activities to date
                        related to the Convention.


                        The development of the Nuclear Safety Convention is one of a number of
Scope and Objectives    cooperative efforts being undertaken by the international community to
of the Nuclear Safety   improve nuclear safety. The impetus for these efforts is based largely on
Convention              the continuing concern about the safety of the older Soviet-designed
                        reactors. Many of these reactors are operating without basic safety
                        features, such as protective structures to contain radioactive releases and
                        adequately trained personnel. Although the Convention is not viewed as a
                        panacea or “quick fix,” it is believed to be a positive step toward
                        improving worldwide nuclear safety. Importantly, though, the Convention
                        does not require any specific actions like closing unsafe nuclear reactors,
                        and its focus is limited to civilian nuclear power reactors. The Convention
                        seeks to achieve its safety objectives through countries’ adherence to
                        general safety principles rather than binding technical standards. These
                        principles include (1) establishing and maintaining a legislative framework
                        and an independent regulatory body to govern the safety of nuclear
                        installations; (2) establishing procedures to ensure that technical aspects
                        of safety, such as the siting, design, and construction of nuclear power
                        reactors, are adequately considered; and (3) ensuring that an acceptable
                        level of safety is maintained throughout the life of the installations by such
                        things as considering safety to be a priority and establishing a quality
                        assurance program.

                        The majority of the country representatives that we met with during the
                        early drafting stages of the Convention supported these principles. A few
                        country officials stated, however, that without establishing procedures for
                        addressing existing problem reactors, including time frames for upgrading
                        their safety, the Convention would not improve nuclear safety.
                        Nevertheless, 65 countries have signed the Convention, and 49 of the 65
                        have ratified it. As you know, the United States has signed but not ratified
                        the Convention.


                        As noted, the Convention does not impose sanctions for noncompliance.
Peer Review Process     Rather, it seeks to encourage compliance through a peer review process,
Is Central to the       which is considered central to the Convention’s success. According to
Convention’s Success    officials of the departments of State and Energy and NRC, this process will
                        enable countries’ safety practices to be brought before the “bar of world
                        public opinion.” The Convention does not specify the form and content of



                        Page 2                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-127
the peer review process but calls on the parties to (1) submit
self-assessment reports of the measures they have taken to implement the
Convention and (2) hold meetings to review these reports. As you are
aware, the first meeting of the parties will take place next month at the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria.

Review groups composed of members from participating countries serve
as the foundation of the peer review mechanism. Each group includes
members from several countries that have ratified the Convention. As the
process is currently envisioned, the countries with the most operating
nuclear reactors will participate in separate groups along with several
other countries that have ratified the Convention. Within this group
setting, all countries will critically examine and review how each country
is complying with the Convention. Because the United States has not yet
ratified the Convention, it has not yet been assigned to one of the country
groups. In our 1997 report, we pointed out that NRC officials had expressed
some concern about the potential grouping of countries. For example, the
United States, which has spent tens of millions of dollars to improve the
safety of Soviet-designed reactors, will not be in the same review group as
Russia, which operates many of these reactors.

Although U.S. representatives had misgivings about the country peer
review groups, the Convention states that each country shall have a
reasonable opportunity to discuss and seek clarification of the reports of
any other party at the review meeting. As a result, NRC officials believed
that regardless of how the countries are ultimately grouped, the United
States would have ample opportunity to review and comment on the
self-assessment reports of all countries. According to NRC, the procedures
on the peer review process have been clarified since the issuance of our
1997 report. The process will begin with discussions by group members
but will then allow countries that are outside a particular group to obtain
information of interest to them. Outside parties will be permitted to sit in
on the full discussion of any report about which they have submitted
questions or comments as observers. NRC believes this process will enable
the United States’ concerns about any country’s report to be fully heard.

We would like to point out that this process is still somewhat theoretical
and neither we nor anyone else can be fully certain that it will work
precisely as described. Furthermore, it is unclear what form peer pressure
will take and how it will cause changes in a country’s nuclear power
program. As we noted in our May 1993 report, overall responsibility for




Page 3                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-127
                        nuclear safety rests with the country where a nuclear installation is
                        located.

                        Another issue that will affect the success of the peer review process is the
                        quality of the individual countries’ self-assessment reports, which are
                        expected to describe how the parties are complying with the Convention.
                        Because of differences in countries’ nuclear safety programs and available
                        resources, NRC officials anticipate unevenness in the quality and detail of
                        the reports. In their view, this unevenness could affect the level of review
                        and analysis. Similarly, an NRC official recently told us that there is no
                        standard format for the reports and that quality issues will remain
                        problematic.


                        The public dissemination of information about the countries’ progress in
Public Access to        meeting the terms of the Convention can play a key role in influencing
Information Resulting   compliance, according to some experts familiar with international
From the                agreements that rely primarily on peer review. Although U.S. and IAEA
                        officials believe the Convention will encourage greater openness about
Convention’s Meetings   many countries’ safety records and programs, it is uncertain how much
Can Influence           information resulting from the periodic meetings will be made available to
                        the public. According to NRC officials, the countries can limit the
Compliance              distribution of their reports. While several countries have made the reports
                        prepared for the first review meeting available to the public and even
                        accessible on the Internet, an NRC official told us that one country, for
                        example, has not made its report public. According to an NRC official, the
                        United States plans to make its report publicly available.

                        Our 1997 report pointed out some concerns about what type of public
                        record would result from the periodic meetings. We noted that the
                        Convention provides for the public distribution of a report summarizing
                        the issues discussed and the decisions reached during a meeting. However,
                        an NRC official recently told us that the report will be generic in nature and
                        unlikely to identify countries by name. Overall, NRC officials told us that
                        the Convention does not specifically provide for the kind of openness that
                        they would prefer but they believe that over time, more information will be
                        made available to the public. Certainly, promoting greater openness about
                        countries’ nuclear safety regimes will enhance the credibility of the
                        process.




                        Page 4                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-127
                     In January 1997, we reported that the United States estimated that it could
Costs to Implement   spend up to $1.1 million through fiscal year 1999 to prepare for and attend
the Convention       the first review meeting. However, according to an NRC official, the actual
                     costs for this time period will be significantly less because U.S. officials
                     have not participated in the full range of meetings and activities to date
                     related to the Convention.

                     The Convention states that IAEA will bear the costs of administering the
                     meeting of the parties, which were expected to total about $1 million. Our
                     1997 report noted that IAEA planned to support the Convention through its
                     operating budget, which the United States supports through an annual
                     25-percent contribution. NRC officials had told us that they were concerned
                     about IAEA’s potential costs for administering the Convention. The factors
                     affecting IAEA’s costs primarily involve the number of languages used to
                     conduct the meeting of the parties and the corresponding translation
                     services. Recently, though, an NRC official told us that costs are being
                     contained because English will serve as the working language for the
                     meeting of the parties. If more languages had been used, then the costs
                     would have been higher given the corresponding costs for translation. As
                     noted in our 1997 report, IAEA’s then Deputy Director General for Nuclear
                     Safety told us that the Convention might uncover additional safety
                     problems that require attention. As a result, the countries with the most
                     acute safety problems may seek to use the Convention process as leverage
                     to obtain additional nuclear safety assistance.


                     This concludes our statement. We would be happy to respond to any
                     questions you or other Members of the Committee may have.




(141313)             Page 5                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-127
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