Nuclear Safety:

Convention on Nuclear Safety Is Viewed by Most Member Countries as Strengthening Safety Worldwide

GAO-10-489: Published: Apr 29, 2010. Publicly Released: Jun 1, 2010.

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Currently, 437 civilian nuclear power reactors are operating in 29 countries, and 56 more are under construction. After the Chernobyl accident, representatives of over 50 nations, including the United States, participated in the development of the Convention on Nuclear Safety, a treaty that seeks to promote the safety of civilian nuclear power reactors. The Convention has been in force since 1996. GAO was asked to assess (1) parties' views on the benefits and limitations of the Convention, (2) efforts to improve implementation of the Convention, and (3) how International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) programs complement the Convention's safety goals. GAO surveyed the 64 parties to the Convention for which it was in force at the time of GAO's review and analyzed the responses of the 32 that completed it, analyzed relevant documents, and interviewed U.S. and foreign officials.

The Convention on Nuclear Safety plays a useful role in strengthening the safety of civilian nuclear power reactors worldwide, according to most parties to the Convention that responded to GAO's survey and representatives of parties GAO interviewed. In particular, parties indicated that the Convention's obligations to (1) establish effective legislative and regulatory frameworks and strong, independent nuclear regulatory bodies and (2) prepare a national report every 3 years that describes the measures the country has taken to achieve the Convention's nuclear safety goals, are among its most useful contributions. The countries present their national reports at review meetings, address questions that may arise about the reports, and assess and ask questions about the reports of other parties. This is known as the peer review process. Some concerns were raised about limited public access to Convention proceedings, some countries' lack of resources to fully participate in the review meetings, and the absence of performance metrics in the national reports to gauge progress toward meeting safety goals and objectives. Half of the parties responding to GAO's survey stated that the lack of performance metrics limited the usefulness of the Convention. Neither the Department of State nor the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has formally proposed the adoption of performance metrics. However, NRC officials told GAO that performance metrics could be useful. In addition, the number of parties posting their national reports to IAEA's public Web site has declined since 2005. NRC and Department of State officials told GAO that the United States has always made its national report available on the Internet. However, the U.S. approach has been to lead by example rather than taking an active role in encouraging other parties to post their reports. Further, universal participation would advance achievement of the Convention's goals. Several representatives from countries who are parties to the Convention told GAO that Iran should ratify the Convention. In their view, without Iran's participation, the international community has limited or no insight on, or access to, Iran's civilian nuclear power program. Russia, which is helping Iran build the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, may condition continued assistance on Iran becoming a party to the Convention, according to Russian officials. The parties have taken some actions to improve the Convention's implementation, and more proposals are being considered. Steps have been taken to make the process for asking questions during peer review meetings more open and to increase the amount of time available for preparing for the review meetings. IAEA nuclear safety programs, which predate the Convention, complement the Convention's safety goals through the Technical Cooperation program, safety standards, and peer review missions. The Technical Cooperation program supports, among other things, the development of nuclear power. IAEA has established nuclear safety standards and also promotes nuclear safety through peer review missions that evaluate the operations of a member state's nuclear regulatory system and nuclear power plant operational safety

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO recommended that the Secretary of State, in coordination with the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), work with other parties to the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS) to encourage parties to include performance metrics in national reports to better track safety in civilian nuclear power plants and help countries more systematically measure where and how they have made progress in improving safety. National reports that describe the measures the country has taken to achieve the Convention's nuclear safety goals are prepared every three years. The countries present their national reports at review meetings, address questions that may arise about the reports, and assess and ask questions about the reports of other parties. According to State and NRC officials, and as recommended by GAO, the United States worked with other parties and submitted proposals on more than one occasion to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and all parties to the Convention to include safety performance metrics in the national reports. For example, at the 5th CNS review meeting in 2011 the United States submitted a proposal on safety performance metrics. However, the meeting occurred just weeks after the Fukushima Daiichi accident, and discussion of the accident and possible responses to it consumed all the time at the Open Ended Working Group, where such proposals to contracting parties were to be discussed. The United States did not resubmit the proposal for discussion at the 2012 Extraordinary Meeting to discuss the Fukushima accident because it was not directly relevant to Fukushima lessons learned. However, it was agreed at the 2012 Extraordinary Meeting to establish the Working Group on Effectiveness and Transparency (WGET) with the task of reporting to the next review meeting (in 2014) on a list of actions to support the Convention and on proposals to amend, where necessary, the Convention. Another country submitted a similar proposal on metrics in 2012 that also did not gain consensus. The United States participated in four WGET meetings during 2013. The NRC expected that the U.S. proposal on safety metrics would be given full consideration. However, the proposal to consider including safety performance metrics was not among the topics recommended by the WGET for discussion by the contracting parties at the 2014 review meeting. In summary, although the U.S. proposal to include performance metrics in national reports did not gain the consensus of contracting parties to the Convention in 2011, 2012, or during WGET meetings in 2013, and was not discussed at the 2014 review meeting, State and NRC did implement the recommendation to work with other parties to the Convention to encourage parties to include performance metrics in national reports.

    Recommendation: To further enhance the usefulness of the Convention in promoting the safety of civilian nuclear power programs worldwide, the Secretary of State should, in coordination with the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, work with other parties to the Convention to encourage parties to include performance metrics in national reports to better track safety in civilian nuclear power plants and help countries more systematically measure where and how they have made progress in improving safety.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2012 Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) officials told us that the United States leads by example on this issue by always making the U.S. National Report submitted to the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS) for review by contracting parties at triennial review meetings available to the public on both the NRC and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Web sites. In addition, according to NRC, the United States is currently using its two leadership positions in the CNS to work with the leaders from other countries and encouraging all contracting parties to also make their reports publicly available on the IAEA web site. In addition, according to NRC officials, U.S. officials discussed this topic with the CNS Scientific Secretary, and on December 22, 2010, in a message from the CNS Scientific Secretary to all contracting parties, he reminded them that: "in the spirit of openness and transparency. Contracting Parties are encouraged to notify IAEA when they agree to have their National Reports posted on the IAEA public website." The topic of transparency was also discussed during the Working Group on Effectiveness and Transparency (WGET) meetings, including discussions on making national reports publicly available. The contracting parties participating in the WGET agreed that proposals such as transparency and public posting of reports could be recommended for consideration at the 6th (2014) Review Meeting. GAO considers this recommendation to be implemented because NRC and U.S. Department of State officials have made multiple efforts to encourage contracting parties to make as much information publicly accessible as possible, including posting national reports prepared for triennial review meetings, and state they will continue to do so.

    Recommendation: To further enhance the usefulness of the Convention in promoting the safety of civilian nuclear power programs worldwide, the Secretary of State should, in coordination with the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, work with other parties to the Convention to expand efforts to increase the number of parties' national reports made available to the public by posting them to IAEA's public Web site.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC officials report that the United States leads by example by always making its written answers to questions about the U.S. National Report available to the public on the NRC and the IAEA Web sites. Similar to the process for making the National Reports available, the countries need to notify IAEA when they agree to have their answers posted on the IAEA public Web site. GAO considers this recommendation to be implemented because NRC and U.S. Department of State officials have made multiple efforts to encourage contracting parties to make as much information publicly accessible as possible, including posting written answers to questions about national reports prepared for triennial review meetings, and state they will continue to promote dissemination of the contracting parties' questions and answers.

    Recommendation: To further enhance the usefulness of the Convention in promoting the safety of civilian nuclear power programs worldwide, the Secretary of State should, in coordination with the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, work with other parties to the Convention to promote greater public dissemination of parties' written answers to questions about their nuclear power programs by posting this information to IAEA's public Web site.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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