1998 Congressional Hearings
Special Weapons
Nuclear, Chemical, Biological and Missile

Statement of Terry R. Lash

Director, Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology
U.S. Department of Energy
Before the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces
Committee on Armed Services
United States Senate

March 12, 1998


Mr. Chairman, I am Terry R. Lash, Director of the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology. I am pleased to have this opportunity to present our FY 1999 budget request to you today. The Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology (NE) represents the core of the U.S. Government's expertise in nuclear energy research, technology, and engineering. This technical expertise has enabled us to play a vital role in addressing the nation's nuclear energy issues, and it equips us to address critical energy-related challenges in the future. One of those challenges is how to improve the safety of Soviet-designed nuclear power plants in Central and Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union in order to lessen the possibility of another catastrophic accident such as the one that took place in Chornobyl.

The primary objective of the International Nuclear Safety Program is to improve the safety of Soviet-designed reactors. Serious problems exist at these plants in the areas of plant operation, systems design, infrastructure support, and independent regulation. The importance of reducing the risk presented by these reactor plants can be seen by looking at the aftermath of the Chornobyl accident. This disaster was one of the events that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet system. A nuclear accident of such magnitude today could have very negative effects on the political stability of the region in addition to its catastrophic economic and environmental impacts. It is in our national interest that these countries remain stable, independent, and continue their movement toward democracy and free market economies.

The Office has prepared a strategic plan describing our approach to address these safety problems. In preparing this plan and selecting individual projects, DOE thoroughly reviewed relevant technical reports prepared by the International Atomic Energy Agency and consulted extensively with experts in Europe. Emphasis is given to the transfer of technology through a pilot-plant approach to address the main issues and then transfer the work done at the pilot plants to other sites. A program plan provides the detailed project plans and funding needs. Based on these plans, a set of performance measurements was established to help measure our progress in improving safety and provide feedback so we can optimize our approach.

The primary areas in which work is underway are development of operator training programs based on U.S. training methods, installation of full scope simulators to train operators how to respond to accident conditions, and improvements to safety systems such as the replacement of instrumentation modules that cannot be properly calibrated or reliably repaired. We are also teaching host countries how to conduct safety assessments that will assure that plant personnel understand the nature of potential safety problems and how to solve them.

Examples from the many accomplishments of the program are the following: more than 3,000 power plant operators have received training at centers in Russia and Ukraine; emergency backup electrical power systems have been provided to the Kola and Kursk nuclear power plants in Russia; full-scope simulators have been delivered and installed at Khmelnytskyy Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine and at the Ukrainian Engineering Technical Center; equipment to improve safety-related maintenance has been provided to Kursk, Leningrad, and Smolensk nuclear power plants in Russia and the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine; and fire-resistant flooring material is being installed at the Armenia nuclear power plant.

Our projects are improving safety. For instance, while developing and validating a model to monitor core power level and power distribution within the core of RBMK reactors, as part of a safety parameter display system project, it was discovered that a particular RBMK reactor had at times been operating in an unsafe manner that could have caused an accident resulting in a major release of radioactive fission products. Although a safety margin is included in the reactor's operating limit to prevent this type of failure, prior to the development of a new three dimensional model, this RBMK reactor had at times operated beyond the established safety margins. By providing modern safety parameter display systems for RBMK reactors, we are substantially improving the operator's understanding of total core power, power distribution across the reactor, safety margins, reactor stability, and the margin of failure of individual fuel rods. Within five seconds, the operator can become aware of dangerous situations requiring plant shutdown or repositioning of the control rods.

As this example demonstrates, we do not simply solve nuclear safety problems for other countries; we give them the know-how and technology they need to solve problems themselves using modern methods and equipment. The goal is to transfer the capabilities that will enable them to carry out nuclear safety improvements long after our program has been completed. The strategic plan identifies end points for each of the major parts of the program. With adequate funding we believe that by 2005 our program will have accomplished our goal of bringing countries that operate Soviet-era nuclear power plants up to or near international safety practices in the operation of their nuclear plants.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory assists DOE in managing this international nuclear safety program. Argonne National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory also participate in areas in which they have special expertise. Our technical experts develop projects in close collaboration with our host country counterparts including representatives of plants, design institutes, and safety-related organizations. Products and services needed by host countries are competitively bid in the U.S. private sector, though work is done in the host country whenever possible. Approximately 75 percent of program funds are expended with U.S. contractors, 20 percent with the national laboratories, and 5 percent with host country organizations. We do not, as a rule, provide funds to large governmental organizations such as Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy. We find that our approach of working directly with the organizations that actually implement nuclear safety projects is a more effective method of cooperation.

The European Commission, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and many other Western countries and Japan are also providing expertise and equipment to countries having Soviet-designed reactors. Our work is coordinated closely with these partners. We also work closely with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that is providing assistance to these countries to develop a strong and independent regulator.

For FY 1999, we have requested $35 million to allow DOE to perform the following important tasks:

In addition to our efforts to improve the safety of Soviet-designed reactors, we are working closely with the U.S. Agency for International Development to address the unique challenges associated with the safety and shutdown of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. Our work in this area has its roots in the December 1995 agreement between the G-7 nations and the Government of Ukraine on a comprehensive program to shut down Chornobyl by the year 2000. It was agreed at that time that loans would be made available for electricity sector reforms, replacement power, and efficiency measures. Grants would also be provided for short-term safety upgrades, decommissioning, social costs of shutdown, and dealing with the deteriorating sarcophagus that covers the damaged unit.

The Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology supports this comprehensive effort in three ways. First, we are providing short-term safety upgrades at the one remaining operating unit at Chornobyl. Second, we are supporting collaborative nuclear safety projects at the International Chornobyl Center for Nuclear Safety, Radioactive Waste and Radioecology that will enable Ukraine to develop comprehensive, sustainable programs for the safe management of nuclear activities and facilities. Third, we are taking steps to ensure worker health and safety at the sarcophagus containing the damaged Chornobyl reactor while participating in G-7 efforts to develop a long-term solution.

In conclusion, I would like to again stress the importance of continuing to improve the safety of the Soviet-designed reactors in the countries of the former Soviet Union, in order to lessen the possibility of another catastrophic accident like Chornobyl. Thank you for your attention.