n LLNL risk-assessment experience, the most useful aspects of risk assessment are not exclusively the risk numbers that are generated, but also the insight gained from a systematic and methodical consideration of what can go wrong with a system.UR expertise in risk assessment has evolved over 20 years of experience. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Fission Energy and Systems Safety Program (FESSP) first helped the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to set up guidelines for safely siting and building nuclear power reactors. Today's challenge is to meet increasing needs to evaluate the safety risks of diverse, engineered systems.
Risk-analysis techniques have been used by both government and industry to study and assess the safety, reliability, and effectiveness of various products, processes, and facilities. We performed original probabilistic risk analyses in three important areas: seismic safety in U.S. nuclear power plants, regulations in transporting spent nuclear reactor fuel, and, most recently, human-initiated risk in using a nuclear medical device. These assessments have evolved into the development of new methods and techniques, subsequently affecting regulatory developments and broadening the range of applications and usefulness for risk analysis.
Health Versus Engineering Risk Assessments
Other times, a risk assessment focuses on the health effects that can occur when an "engineered" system fails, because of a natural or human-initiated event or when the protective barrier between the environment and that system fails (Figure 1). Known as engineering risk assessments, they are commonly carried out by agencies of the federal government that make safety, health, or design decisions about risk-posing facilities or equipment. Examples of agencies that use engineering risk assessments are
The Assessment Process
In 1983, the National Academy of Sciences published a document that standardized the process for health risk assessment. The book, Risk Assessment in the Federal Government: Managing the Process,1 is also known informally as the "Red Book."|
The Red Book breaks the risk assessment process into four basic elements:
If we compare these health risk assessment elements to the five basic elements of engineering risk assessment, we find both similarities and differences between the two processes. In an engineering risk assessment, the event consequence step contains the first three steps described in the Red Book (Figure 2). In NRC studies that analyze the impact from a release of radioactive material, this consequence would be the dispersion of material in the environment; the uptake of the material via inhalation, ingestion, or other exposure pathways; and the response of various body organs to such exposures. The results would lead to an estimate of the probability of cancer incidence or fatality, given that the radioactive release had occurred.
Perhaps the most significant difference between the two processes is the treatment of event frequencies. In an engineering risk assessment, the analyst considers both the frequency of an event (e.g., a large earthquake occurring near a nuclear power plant) and the probabilities of different failures within the engineered system. Different combinations of failures can lead to health threats of different severity. For example, an earthquake could produce a variety of damage in a nuclear power plant, including no damage at all. These damage states could, in turn, lead to a variety of potential radioactive releases, or no release at all. Thus, a single initial event can lead to a variety of possible health effects, each with its own probability.
On the other hand, in a health risk assessment, the analyst deals primarily with situations involving chronic releases to the environment with a release probability of 1, that is, the assumption that such a release will absolutely occur. This type of assessment would propose to restrict or eliminate the material's presence rather than mitigate with engineering controls or boundaries.
The differences between engineered-system risk assessment and health risk assessment thus have a significant impact on risk-management strategies. Although eliminating hazards is an effective strategy, it is not always practical in an industrialized economy. Engineering risk assessment supports the management of risk through design, maintenance, and administrative controls. Reducing the possibility that accident initiators and hazards can cause consequences--through effective and reliable engineered barriers and mitigative controls--provides a means of managing risks in industrial activity while protecting the environment, safety, and health of the public.
Another important difference between the two processes has to do with consequence measures, or endpoints, of risk assessment. Health risk assessment is specific to exposures from toxic chemicals and the associated dose response; hence, the ultimate endpoint can be cancer fatality. In engineering risk assessment, the endpoint varies. Common endpoints include worker health and safety, loss of a facility or piece of equipment (for example, the crash of an airplane and the associated, implicit health effects), immediate loss of life (one of the results of a large earthquake), or long-term loss of life from cancer (one of the results of a nuclear power plant accident). In addition to these consequences, engineering risk assessment can have other nonhealth-related endpoints. For example, the endpoint of a Department of the Interior risk assessment study on dam failure involved the economic impact that failure would have on the surrounding community.
Our Focus: Engineering Risk Assessment
|Type of engineering risk assessment||Application or activity|
|Conceptual design evaluations||Determine the viability of a particular site for a particular facility.|
|Analyze and compare competing technologies or processes.|
|Evaluate the risks of emerging technologies.|
|Detailed studies||Identify risk-dominant scenarios to provide guidance for refinements in the design of a system or facility.|
|Analyze and compare the reliability or availability of system/component options.|
|Provide specifications to design components, systems, or structures that will have high reliability and protection against severe natural phenomena.|
|Analyze and improve a facility's training programs, operator-equipment interfaces, and operating procedures.|
|Determine optimum safety limits, equipment outage times, and testing frequencies to minimize risk.|
|Analyze acceptable risk to document the importance of risk-based desgn features and systems interactions data.|
|Facility operations studies||Carry out a risk-bassed analysis of operating events.|
|Design and implement risk-based trends and patterns.|
|Improve system availability.|
|Enhance component inspection, testing, monitoring, and maintenance based on component failure analysis.|
|Evaluate and prioritize safety issues.|
|Evaluate, select, and schedule modification.|
|Assess continued operations.|
|Enhance safety, emergency, and accident management information and training.|
|Management support studies||Provide risk-based perspectives for decision-making.|
|Provide information for allocating resources (staff, budgets) and identifying research needs.|
|Measure safety performance.|
|Perform risk-based quality assurance and audits.|
|Policy/standards development studies||Assess and develop rules, standards, and safety criteria.|
|Develop safety measures, goals, and criteria.|
|Assure coordination and consistency of safety goals and criteria.|
The FESSP specializes in integrating advanced analytic methods with an understanding of nuclear technologies, economics, and policy-making. Over the last 20 years, we have performed a number of original risk-assessment studies to support regulatory developments at the NRC. We concentrate on safety issues relating to engineered systems that either use or contain nuclear material, as shown in the following four cases:
Depending on the nature of the problem, the detailed methods used in each study vary in that they may include any or all of the basic elements of the engineering risk-assessment process. However, each study is similar in that it constitutes a rational and systematic approach to obtaining information that can be used to increase safety, formulate policy, develop standards, omit costly duplications, or implement regulatory guidelines.
Our evolving experience base thus provides the government with recommendations of risk-based regulations and prioritizations for resource allocations. It shows where regulatory reform can help the government--and the country--work better and safer for less.
Case 1: Seismic Criteria for Siting Nuclear Power Plants
Sponsored by the NRC, this first U.S. seismic probabilistic risk assessment for nuclear power plants from 1978 to 1985 cost $18 million. The same methodology was then used by the nuclear industry to assess 35 nuclear power plant sites. The majority of seismic probabilistic risk-assessment knowledge existing in the technical community today was gained through this massive exercise.
Our methodology is now widely used by the NRC and other public utilities to evaluate and compare, on a relative scale, the risks associated with existing nuclear power plants. In many cases, its use has led to retrofitting, reinforcement, and redesign of components or systems to achieve comparable levels of risk across the entire population of plants.
Currently, we are helping the NRC to overhaul the seismic siting criteria for new nuclear power plants. Our experience base has been used to help develop proposed risk-based regulations now under public review. Previous regulations were based on methodologies that rely on single deterministic models. Often such models pit one group of experts against another group, creating time delays and thus protracting the plant licensing process. The proposed changes to regulations are based on a methodology that provides a framework for assessing all information and makes maximum use of existing data and factors from all possible modeling and scientific alternatives. As such, the changes should help streamline the plant licensing process.
Case 2: Safety of Reactor Coolant Piping
The difficulty--and cost--of designing a nuclear power plant for postulated pipe breaks was exacerbated by a related requirement that the hydrodynamic loads be combined with the vibratory loads that result from a "safe shutdown earthquake," the maximum design-basis earthquake for a nuclear power plant. In effect, this requirement presumed that an earthquake could cause pipe breaks in all high-energy piping systems. This requirement was also problematic because the design objectives for safe piping systems under normal conditions contradicted those for safe piping systems under earthquake conditions.
During normal operation, piping systems must be flexible enough to expand to relieve the thermal stresses that can drive cracks through their walls and cause leaks or breaks. However, during a large earthquake (which is most likely a once-in-a-plant-lifetime occurrence), stiff piping is needed to assure that seismically induced breaks do not occur. Designers have met these cross purposes by using "pipe snubbers," elaborate mechanical and/or hydraulic devices that allow pipes to move during normal operation but anchor them rigidly when they are subjected to rapid (i.e., seismic) loads. Pipe snubbers not only require periodic testing and maintenance--in areas of high radiation and difficult access--but have proved unreliable. Many have been found to lose their earthquake-resisting function; others have been found to restrict normal thermal expansion and seriously increase pipe stresses. (In the latter mode, then, these safety devices can actually increase the likelihood of pipe failure.)
For years, nuclear plant designers have contended that the likelihood of seismically induced breaks is low enough to be considered negligible. They believed that protective measures such as pipe whip restraints and jet impingement barriers may actually decrease the reliability of piping systems. In the early 1980s, the nuclear industry sought to exempt itself from the NRC piping safety regulations by doing extensive research in deterministic fracture mechanics so that it could argue the merits of a "leak-before-break" concept. That is, because of the very tough materials used in nuclear piping, even large cracks through walls would remain stable and not result in a double-ended guillotine break. The NRC sought additional technical information to respond to the exemption request.
The FESSP engineers, in an independent confirmatory research effort funded by the NRC Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, developed and applied risk-assessment techniques (Figure 4b) to estimate the likelihood of a double-ended guillotine break in the coolant loop piping of a pressurized water reactor (PWR). This effort consisted of the "Flexible vs Rigid Piping Program," "Piping Reliability Program," and "Load Combination Program" carried out between 1981 and 1985 at a cost of $3.5 million.
The results of this analysis indicated that the probability of this kind of break in a PWR's coolant loop piping is low enough under all plant conditions, including earthquakes, to justify eliminating it as a basis for plant design. Our analysis also showed that the probability of a pipe break being caused by an earthquake is significantly less, by a factor of 10 to 100, than the probability of a pipe break being caused by thermal stress. The results of a companion probabilistic analysis of stiff versus flexible piping supported the opinion that inadvertent stiffness (resulting, for example, from failed pipe snubbers) can indeed reduce nuclear power plant safety.
On the basis of these technical results, we recommended that the NRC eliminate the double-ended guillotine break requirement in the reactor coolant loop of PWR designs. After an exhaustive peer review of the results by technical experts, the provisions of General Design Criterion 4 were modified by excluding from the design basis any dynamic effects associated with loss-of-coolant accidents. Our technical analyses made it possible to apply the new exclusion rule to the main reactor coolant loop piping in all U.S. PWR plants.
The rule change also indicated the removal of pipe snubbers--a decision that had two major effects. First, it reduced the amount of time that maintenance and inspection personnel had to spend in high radiation areas, thus reducing their exposure to radiation. Second, the nuclear power industry no longer had to design, fabricate, install, and maintain the costly snubber equipment. Industry spokespersons say that the rule change has resulted in savings of tens of millions of dollars for each nuclear power plant.
Case 3: Assessments for Transporting Spent Nuclear Fuel
The study also contained an evaluation of the radiological risk from accidents during transport. Risk represents the summation of the products of the magnitude and likelihood of all accident outcomes. The purpose for making the risk calculations was to compare the resulting values with those previously used by the NRC in judging the adequacy of its regulations. We confirmed the adequacy of existing regulations. Our methods subsequently have become the basis for other transportation risk studies required by DOE/Defense Programs and DOE/Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.
Case 4: Identifying Risks of Using Nuclear Medical Devices
The NRC therefore asked us to perform a preliminary risk analysis of the use of the Gamma Knife. Our review of cases of misadministrations and abnormal occurrences for conventional teletherapy indicated that the assessment of the risks of such an external beam therapy system should be balanced between equipment failures and human mistakes, if not skewed toward the human errors.
The Gamma Knife is used to deliver gamma radiation from cobalt-60 to precisely defined, intracranial targets. Its relatively simple hardware system requires significant human control, but because the instrument is relatively new, very little operating failure data exists for it. Most operational information resides in the, as yet, limited and little-documented experience base of the manufacturer and operators. FESSP was asked to identify the high-risk, human-initiated actions and failure modes that are most likely to occur and to evaluate their relative importance.
To do that, we adopted an approach that relied on empirical evidence, observations, and expert experience. In this approach, an analysis of the Gamma Knife treatment tasks provided a systematic framework that could adequately account for and describe activities and equipment that could lead to undesirable events or consequences. We relied on experts' estimates of likelihood, consequence, and risk for the primary tasks, and compared them by means of relative risk rankings and risk profiles. These estimates aided the identification of the highest-risk or critical tasks, without requiring an absolute quantification of risk for each task.
We believe the approach may be best used to identify weaknesses in processes and to support the development of positive performance measures, rather than to predict the numerical risk associated with poor performance. Perhaps most effective in nuclear medical applications that are not highly structured, the approach could serve to produce reliable processes and procedures to prevent misadministrations that result from mistakes. We have yet to apply these principles and techniques elsewhere, but we expect them to be applicable where human-initiated actions are important. The lesson learned is that informative assessments can be made from a relative risk analysis; the approach is also inexpensive and practical.
When to Perform Risk Assessments
However, risk assessment also has its limitations. It may sometimes exclude or not adequately quantify potentially important risk factors, such as very-low-frequency accident initiators, various failures derived from a common event, physical processes resulting from several low-frequency failures, or long-term health effects from potentially toxic materials. Furthermore, because a risk assessment often deals with low-frequency but high-consequence accident risks, there is considerable potential for its results to be misunderstood.
In our experience, the most useful aspects of risk assessment are not exclusively the risk numbers that are generated; they are also the insight gained by a systematic and methodical consideration of what can go wrong with a system. A procedural analysis helps us to understand the likely vulnerabilities of the system, the threats they pose, and the measures that could be applied to mitigate or prevent them.
Risk assessment is a particularly powerful tool when there is only a limited set of alternatives for risk evaluation. "Real-world" managers, too, often have only limited resources to improve safety. Ultimately, the "best" choice will depend on the context of the manager's problem, as illustrated by our piping safety study.
We have found that it is important to do sensitivity, or "what-if," analyses to determine the relative importance of input to a risk assessment. Varied input allows us to (1) distinguish risks from variations in assumptions, modeling, or data; (2) identify where a lack of information is crucial; (3) determine which factors contribute the most to risk; and (4) investigate potential preventive or mitigative solutions that combine various risk-reduction measures. Because evaluations of alternatives or sensitivity analyses do not require absolute risk values, we can use relative risk estimates or risk rankings to compare risks. Relative risk estimates are adequate to compare alternative approaches to the same problem or to achieve comparable levels of risk across a population of similar systems. Thus, meaningful insights can be obtained by a risk assessment without depending on the accuracy of an "actual risk" value--such values are notoriously difficult to ascertain.
Uncertainty is a very important part of any risk assessment, particularly when there is an attempt to accurately quantify an actual risk. Uncertainty studies should be performed to evaluate the dependence of the assessment results on uncertainty values. Sources of uncertainty occur in models, methods, and data. Given the uncertainties inherent in any risk assessment, expert analysts may disagree over risk characterization values. Sometimes consensus is obtained by defaulting to the most conservative estimates. Such practices tend to "ratchet-up" prescriptive risk standards.
Because a risk analysis receives so much scrutiny, the risk assessment must be documented and understood. It is also extremely important to have the assessment reviewed by independent agents both internal and external to the organization performing the assessment.
Finally, the results of a risk assessment are only one of many inputs to a decision. Other factors--which may have nothing to do with technical risk per se--include cost considerations, compliance with rules and regulations, mission objectives, business operations, and public perceptions. The relationships among these factors can be complex, and the relative value of each is context dependent. Integrating these factors into the decision-making process is essential.
Key Words: engineering risk assessment; Fission Energy Systems Safety Program (FESSP), Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC); probabilistic, risk, risk assessment.
National Research Council, Risk Assessment in the Federal Government: Managing the Process, National Academy Press, Washington, DC (1983). This guideline has recently been augmented by a new National Research Council study, Science and Judgment in Risk Assessment, National Academy Press, Washington, DC (1994).
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For further information contact Edwin Jones (510) 422-8259 (email@example.com).
ED JONES came to the Laboratory in 1991, when he joined the Fission Energy and Systems Safety Program. Since 1993, he has been the Deputy Associate Program Leader for Risk Assessment, System Engineering, and Human Performance. He has written ten papers on risk assessment since arriving in Livermore.