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NRC's research program comes under fire.

NRC's research program comes under fire

The research program of the NuclearRegulatory Commission (NRC) is inefficient, riddled with management problems and largely ignoring some important unanswered questions about the safety of commercial reactors, according to a new National Academy of Sciences report. The report offers unusually sharp criticism and pointed recommendations to NRC, the agency that commissioned it. However, says Steven Blush, a senior staff officer for the panel of experts that directed this assessment, the problems the panel identified were so egregious that his committee decided "nothing short of candor would have an impact" on those responsible.

The panel had been asked to recommendhow the content of NRC's research program might be improved. That request was largely ignored, however. Says John Ahearne, a former NRC chairman and now vice-president of the Washington, D.C.-based Resources for the Future, "When we started looking at the research program, the consensus of our committee was that the management of it was so poor that it didn't make much sense to try and address its content." Instead the panel focused on management, attitudinal and institutional problems.

"We weren't really in a position to analyzethe relationship between the existing safety research program and the safety of reactors," Blush says. He does note, however, that the panel identified several technical areas that can affect safety and are still largely unstudied.

For example, the panel says, "one of themost significant lessons" of the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island is an appreciation for the role of human error in causing or exacerbating accidents. However, the panel found, NRC is conducting virtually no research into these "human factors" -- how people interact with or limit reactor controls and technology. This indicates, the report says, "that something is seriously wrong with the way the agency goes about structuring its [research] program and setting its budget priorities."

The panel also found NRC's researchprogram hobbled by:

* no "research philosophy" to guidethe agency in setting priorities.

* no long-term planning.

* a small and shrinking budget over thelast five years.

* isolation of the agency's top officers. "Intheory the five commissioners manage the agency and the agency staff," the report says, "yet in practice they do little policy formulation, program planning or staff guidance and do not appear to understand [its research] program."

* "the total absence of peer review," asAhearne describes it. Though peer review "is the standard way to test whether your work is any good," he says, NRC has apparently discouraged publication of its research for fear of providing outsiders with ammunition against the agency. Ahearne says NRC seems equally concerned about having its research data used by critics to question the safety of existing plants as it is about having those data used by the industry to challenge the toughness of its regulations.

* a merger of two offices -- the one thatran NRC's research and the one that wrote safety regulations -- that ultimately compromised the quality of the research. As Ahearne explains, those from the regulations office were driven more by form, such as how standards should be written, than by the data that would or should serve as the basis for those standards. The result of this merger, he says, "seems to be that the people who were far more interested in form won out over the people who were interested in substance."

* "little interest in or understanding ofthe existing research program outside of the Office of Research," in the words of report. For example, Blush points out, the committee discovered that NRC's director of research had not been asked to discuss the research program with the commissioners in roughly two years. "That seems to be a pretty strong indication," he says, "that the commission doesn't have control of the progrm, and lacks both understanding and interest in it."

To counter these problems andstrengthen NRC's research program, the panel recommends that the agency be reorganized -- from the top down. For example, the report hints that a five-member commission (as opposed to the more common, single administrator) may not be the best way to run this agency. Ahearne is less tentative. "I think the commission's structure is inappropriate for an agency that tries to run a research program or an operations program with inspectors." He says it ends up being "a debating forum, not a deciding forum."

The report also recommends that NRCfund more research outside of the national laboratories, where 80 percent of its research is now conducted, and focus more attention on safety questions involving large unknowns. The latter recommendation has not gone unnoticed by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). "You would think the commission would spend its time and its money studying what it did not know much about. Instead," he says, "the commission has been plowing old ground and learning not very much at all." If Moynihan has his way, this will change. As a member of the Senate's subcommittee on nuclear regulation, he plans to use the report as the basis of an effort to redirect NRC's research.

Although NRC is not bound to adoptany of the panel's recommendations, Clare Miles, an NRC spokesperson, told SCIENCE NEWS that the agency is "reviewing the report to see what lessons might be learned." She adds that not only is the administration proposing a 7.2 percent increase in the agency's research budget (to $119 million) in fiscal year 1988, but NRC is also planning a "major reorganization."
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Title Annotation:Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 17, 1987
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