Moments in NRC History: Regulating for Safety and Non-Proliferation, Part II

Thomas Wellock
Historian

RTR_2Part I of our Research and Test Reactor Series looked at the promise and unique safety challenges of research reactors, beginning with North Carolina State’s first civilian-owned reactor in 1953.

In Part II of our video series, we look at how the focus on safety of these reactors evolved into a concern about their security.

The Atomic Energy Commission (the NRC’s predecessor) had developed design requirements for research reactors with large safety margins that tolerated errors. Extensive training and supervision was required of licensed operators. Sabotage was foiled by making the reactors’ uranium fuel difficult to remove or destroy.

However, weapons proliferation became a persistent concern. Reactor designers favored fuel highly enriched in fissionable uranium-235. Uranium-235, however, was also the stuff of atomic bombs.

Initially, the AEC only permitted export of reactor technology with low enrichment, but in the 1960s, it granted international requests to U.S. manufacturers for high performance research reactors. The reactors needed only small quantities of enriched fuel, and it was believed bilateral agreements and regular inspections would assure the used fuel was returned to the U.S.

But events in the 1970s – including India’s detonation of a nuclear device made possible with fissionable material from a Canadian research reactor — demonstrated the limits of this approach.

Lowering the fuel enrichment was seen as a viable solution. In 1978, the Department of Energy launched a program to develop a low enriched fuel that met the performance needs of research reactors. In the U.S., operators of 20 research reactors opted to switch to low-enriched fuel.

MIHAfter the 9/11 attacks, the United States launched the Global Threat Reduction Initiative to accelerate the conversion to low-enriched fuel. Twenty-seven reactors around the world, including six in the United States made this conversion, taking out of circulation enough fissionable material to make 20 crude bombs.

The NRC also pursued enhancements against sabotage and theft with better staff background screening, access controls, security searches, and coordination with emergency responders.

The decline of the nuclear industry since the 1970s and the production of isotopes abroad have reduced the need for research reactors in the U.S. Their numbers have dwindled to about 30. This brought a new concern — the vulnerability of the nation’s isotope supply for medical uses, especially molybdenum-99.

The video explores how that vulnerability is being addressed and how the NRC continues to ensure research reactors operate safely in today’s threat environment. I hope you’ll take the time to watch the video.

NRC Celebrates A Milestone — 40 Years of Safety and Service

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian

It’s been 40 years since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began operations on January 19, 1975. To be sure, the agency inherited a mixed legacy from its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC had established an approach to reactor safety still used today, but critics claimed it worked too closely with the nuclear industry to promote nuclear power. As a new agency, the NRC had to demonstrate that it would be an unbiased, independent regulator.

40yearsOver the years, domestic and international events have challenged the NRC to define what independence meant. A new video on the NRC’s YouTube channel shows us how, in the early years, the essential elements of the NRC’s character were developed and remains today. For example, as the video shows, between 1975 and 1979, the NRC dealt with a major fire at the Brown’s Ferry nuclear power plant in Alabama,  a controversial request to export uranium to India, staff dissent over reactor safety, and tough questioning of its research conclusions regarding the probabilities of nuclear accidents.

From these experiences, the NRC learned that being an independent safety regulator took more than legislation. It meant cultivating a diverse staff, seeking out dissent and heeding critics. Safety research needed to be conducted free of perceived bias, and it learned the limits within which a regulatory agency may act under the United States’ constitutional separation of powers.

All these lessons have proven to be an asset for the NRC when it dealt with its greatest crisis — the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island; and in learning lessons from watershed nuclear events at both Chernobyl and Fukushima. We hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch the video.

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