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Nuclear Technologies Essay




 

Shirley Ann Jackson
President
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 

Throughout its relatively brief history the use of nuclear energy has been marked by contrast and sometimes controversy. We have had to weigh the answers to some hard questions: Does the global threat of nuclear weapons overshadow the benefits of peaceful nuclear technologies? Against this backdrop, how do we create a regulatory regime that allows the promise of civilian use of nuclear technology to be realized? When I was appointed chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 1995, I quickly found that these contrasts and questions were best understood in their historical context.

In the United States, beginning with the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1946, the development and regulation of nuclear energy have evolved along two streams: military uses (i.e., weapons) and civilian or "peaceful" uses (e.g., nuclear power and nuclear medicine). The secrecy necessary initially to protect weapons development gradually extended to the civilian nuclear power industry, sometimes leading to public distrust and misunderstanding that would linger for half a century. Meanwhile, other nations were racing to acquire the secrets of nuclear science as well. After President Eisenhower's 1953 "Atoms for Peace" speech to the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency was created as a vehicle for offering peaceful nuclear technology to the entire world while preventing, through multilateral treaties, the proliferation of weapons technology.

Two decades later in the United States, the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 abolished the AEC, replacing it with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which would focus on protecting public health and safety. The act also created the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) to focus on energy research and development and on the federal government's nuclear energy defense activities. In 1977 ERDA became the U.S. Department of Energy. Then came two pivotal events—the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. The accident at Three Mile Island, resulting in a minor radiation leak, led Congress to reorganize the NRC again, changing aspects of the regulatory and management structure to improve the focus on safety.

These history lessons helped shape my priorities at the NRC: public transparency, a vigorous international presence, and smarter regulation. The commission began taking dramatic steps to give the public an active role in NRC deliberations. We stepped up support for international nuclear safety and security programs, and, together with senior regulators from eight other countries, I founded the International Nuclear Regulators Association.

To promote smarter investments in safety, I pushed for regulation that would take advantage of the insights gained through "probabilistic risk assessments"—exhaustive engineering analyses that ranked the relative risks associated with systems, structures, and components throughout a given nuclear plant. Operations involving high risk—for example, maintenance on a system that would ensure emergency cooling water during an accident—required more stringent quality assurance measures. Other operations of less risk could be handled in a less stringent way. This is the essence of risk-informed operation (and regulation).This risk ranking, when combined with standard emergency analysis and operational history, made regulation more cost effective, by directing the greatest investment toward areas of greatest vulnerability.

The current state of nuclear technology has benefited dramatically from persistent efforts on each of these fronts. Not all of the challenges of nuclear technology have been solved. The terrorist attacks of September 2001 raised the ante for nuclear security, and the year 2002 brought new challenges to international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. But great strides have been made: Nuclear power has become economically competitive while simultaneously operating more safely than ever before, and public confidence in nuclear technology—and appreciation of its many benefits—is on the rise.


 


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