SoTeRiA Laboratory teams up with law school to analyze risk-informed regulation of advanced nuclear reactors

5/9/2024 NPRE News

Written by NPRE News

SoTeRiA Laboratory teams up with law school to analyze risk-informed regulation of advanced nuclear reactors

The Socio-Technical Risk Analysis (SoTeRiA) Research Laboratory, led by NPRE Associate Professor Zahra Mohaghegh, has teamed up with UIUC College of Law Professor Arden Rowell on a new research grant from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The grant, titled “Context-Based Analysis of a Risk-informed, Performance-based Regulatory Approach for Advanced Nuclear Reactors,” will span from 2024 to 2027.

This project aims to address the NRC’s needs in researching performance-based, technology-inclusive safety assurance, evaluating technical gaps and major uncertainties in assessing risk for advanced reactors. By focusing on the engineering-informed legal and regulatory context, the team will conduct a context-based analysis to better understand the legal and institutional frameworks for regulating advanced nuclear reactors. The project will systematically evaluate engineering, legal, and policy literature regarding the existing approaches for regulating technological systems to identify potential scholarly gaps of risk-informed performance-based approaches to regulating advanced nuclear reactors. The team will also develop a case study on the regulation of an advanced nuclear design and share insights and recommendations.

The Principal Investigator (PI), NPRE Associate Professor Zahra Mohaghegh, emphasized the value of this project as a collaboration between engineering and law experts to support NRC’s risk-informed regulation. “Because accident scenarios must consider social and environmental distress, managerial deficiency, and human error as well as physical and technical system failures, I believe that risk analysis and risk-informed regulation require the development of a common vocabulary within diverse engineering and social science domains to address risk emerging from the interface of social and technical systems,” said Prof. Mohaghegh.  

She has dedicated most of her professional life to socio-technical risk analysis, beginning with her Ph.D. thesis on organizational safety risk analysis, and later with her Socio-Technical Risk Analysis (SoTeRiA) Research Laboratory at UIUC. Her contributions to nuclear safety include projects such as the risk-informed resolution of Generic Safety Issue-191, the IAEA project on risk-informed methods for advanced water-cooled reactors, and leading the risk management focus area of the DOE review panel of the Carbon Free Power Project for the small modular reactor plant. Additionally, she has consistently applied her expertise in nuclear risk analysis to a wide array of technological challenges, thereby contributing to enhancing policymaking and regulation across sectors. Examples include her service as a member of the Committee on “Transport Airplane Risk Assessment Methodology”  and the Committee on “Improving the Efficiency and Effectiveness of the Coast Guard Certificate of Compliance Examination Program for Gas Carriers” of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Co-PI Arden Rowell brings to the project her experience as an academic specializing in risk regulation and decision making by federal agencies. Her involvement will integrate an applied policy element, magnifying the impact of the project by ensuring that its key findings and recommendations can be incorporated into law and policy.

“The NRC’s legal responsibility to regulate nuclear energy has never been more important,” Rowell emphasizes. “Reactor technology is advancing rapidly even as the risks of relying on fossil fuels become increasingly apparent. How can NRC best regulate the risks and opportunities presented by advanced reactor technologies, while still staying true to its legal and democratic mandate to protect people and the environment? This is a legitimately difficult question, and I hope that our collaboration can help NRC craft a creative but implementable answer.”

Prof. Rowell’s experience collaborating with engineers, scientists, and social scientists has generated a broad body of work meant to support agencies in making complex decisions, including in the face of multiple hazards and extreme risks; where they must balance catastrophic risk with extreme “upsides;” in managing environmental, climate, and long-term risks; and in integrating ethical, economic, and psychological concerns into agency decision making, including in circumstances where agencies must work within a complicated legal and regulatory landscape. More generally, Prof. Rowell’s interdisciplinary expertise in law, human behavior, and risk analysis enriches the team’s ability to design solutions that can be effectively used by the NRC—while remaining implementable by industry and democratically accountable to the public. Finally, her focus on public welfare and safety is invaluable in ensuring that the public policy goals of safety and sustainability are furthered by this research.

Professors Mohaghegh and Rowell are affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at UIUC, where engineering and non-engineering experts collaborate to address complex real-world problems. They have previously collaborated on a DOE project and are now looking forward to a new collaboration under this NRC grant, supporting the enhancement of risk-informed performance-based regulatory approaches. This project will aid decision-makers and stakeholders in ensuring safe, resilient, sustainable, and socially and environmentally responsible technological advancements for nuclear energy.

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This story was published May 9, 2024.