Nuclear attaché1 November 2012
Cynthia Jones, a nuclear security advisor at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has been appointed to a three-year post in Vienna to support the US mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). When she starts in September, she will join an elite group; the post being the only NRC?staff position located at a mission or embassy overseas. In late July, she discussed her role and her views on global radiological issues with Will Dalrymple.
As the nuclear safety attaché, I am the expert on nuclear safety and nonproliferation. I ensure that the ambassador and others have good information about nuclear safety, and I also inform the other diplomatic missions. There isn’t currently an ambassador, although Robert A. Wood is the chargé d’affaires.”
Why does the US matter for the IAEA?
“The US has the largest fleet of nuclear power reactors—104—so we have considerable operations and personnel expertise in management and licensing too. There are 23,000 licences for radiological facilities and fuel cycle facilities. Within the NRC specifically, expertise ranges from regulation of users manufacturing smoke detectors to hospitals and industrial facilities. For many years, the NRC and others, such as the Department of Energy (DOE), have played an active role partnering with the IAEA and others for strong safety goals and the worldwide oversight of safety. There are many beneficial uses of radiation, if it is used in a manner that is positive to public health. We can provide assistance and expertise. And we can learn good practices as well.”
I remember reading the latest annual report about radiological incidents in the US; most of them seem to be in medicine rather than power. Will this be a focus for you?
“In an INES meeting I attended last week, I learned that countries such as France are working on developing more reporting and greater transparency in medical uses of radiation. For many years we in the USA have had a very good reporting system from the medical community tracking medical misadministration of radiation. We have a database of all medical events, and underreporting issues; this is I think what you are referring to. We want to make sure that something can be learned from events, and can provide that to other countries. But my focus will be mostly nuclear power.”
Why does the IAEA matter for the US?
“The most recent activity following Fukushima shows the benefits of the IAEA. IAEA peer review services such as IRRS missions have been enhanced to provide lessons learned across the board. Early on there was an IAEA action plan for nuclear safety; that is a primary focus of the general conference in September...The NRC continues to successfully participate in those documents to transfer our experience elsewhere. So we make sure that international regulations are implemented worldwide. That’s important in the nuclear power industry, especially for new nuclear countries.”
Would you please evaluate for us the degree to which the International Nuclear Events Scale operated as intended after Fukushima? Is it appropriate that Fukushima should have the same INES?level rating as Chernobyl?
“I am an INES national officer at least for the next few weeks, and report to the advisory committee of the IAEA on this. INES is very widely used in Europe, but is not used as much in the USA. It has a firm technical basis. Its purpose is to ease communication of events. One thing that has not been as clear for those in the media is that it does prescribe giving a provisional rating until more information is available. It provides for a rating to be made on a timely basis, after 24 hours or 48 hours, on a provisional basis, and then, as the event ends, it can issue a final rating. On 12 March when Japan noted pressure increases [and other factors] it re-rated it as level 4, which is correct according to the INES manual. Then venting was initiated, the evacuation zone was increased, and it was raised to an INES level 5. But then the INES rating was raised a month later to level 7. INES is just one tool in the toolbox, and it is the first time it has been used during an accident...We are planning to add guidance in the manual to say that if there are indications of core melt in a severe accident, then the INES level assigned to it should be at least level 5. That is an indication for the media and the public that in a severe accident one should focus on appropriate protective measures.”
“The other issue people have with the INES scale was that the rating of Fukushima was the same as Chernobyl, although the amount of activity released was 10 times less than Chernobyl. Still, both events were well above the INES level 7 threshold. The definition of level 7 is in terms of the amount of activity, and is not dependent on the wind direction, population density, or the success of countermeasures, although all of those would affect the consequences. It is about the severity of what happened on site.”
One area in radiation monitoring where I personally have found little consensus in is in the area of chronic low-dose exposures, and whether or not these are harmful. How should we think about the risk of relatively low levels of radiation?
“There are confusing and conflicting statements of health effects of low-level radiation, which come from an inability to identify any effects below about 5 or 10 rem (50-100 mSv). The issue is, how do you regulate radiation exposures below the legal threshold? The International Commission on Radiation Protection and the National Council of Radiation Protection and Measurement and other bodies in the US, the NRC and Environmental Protection Agency, have opted to be guided by the precautionary principle: if you don’t know an agent is harmful, you assume it is. So you get the notion of linear no-threshold model (which assumes that effect is directly proportional to dose at all levels). But low-level effects are not necessarily described by LNT: LNT is a conservative hypothesis, so that means it remains to be validated.
After your degree, you decided to go into government rather than industry; why?
“With employment in the federal government, my belief is that there is unlimited opportunity; provided that you work hard and continue to develop, the only limitation is you. In 1988, I was working at the National Institute of Standards as a physicist with degrees in physics and health physics, but I was made redundant. I realized that to survive in a technical industry, one needs to be qualified in several disciplines. So I decided to go back to grad school to get my PhD [in nuclear engineering]. At the same time, I applied to lots of different places for a job, and the NRC offered me the best position. ¦
This article was first published in the October 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International