GAO recommends changes at the NRC in wake of Fukushima

The GAO on Oct. 17 released a report dated in September that looks at why there is such a wide disparity of findings by Nuclear Regulatory Commission regional offices when it comes to violations.

The NRC relies on its staff’s professional judgment in implementing its processes for overseeing the safety of U.S. commercial nuclear power reactors, GAO noted. In implementing this oversight, NRC allocates roles and responsibilities to resident inspectors assigned to each plant, officials at four regional offices responsible for most oversight activities, headquarters officials, and the nuclear power industry.

NRC also builds into its processes incentives for plant managers to identify concerns about reactor safety, report those concerns to NRC, and take prompt actions to correct them. NRC’s processes for identifying and assessing findings and violations include several points where NRC staff must exercise professional judgment, such as determining whether issues of concern identified during physical inspections constitute findings or violations and the risk significance of any findings or the severity of any violations, among other things.

The NRC is aware of differences across regional offices in identifying and resolving findings that result from physical inspections, GAO noted. GAO’s analysis of NRC’s data indicated that the number of escalated findings had fewer differences across regions than nonescalated findings, which are lower-risk findings and less severe violations. According to NRC officials, several factors, such as the hours spent on inspections, may explain the differences in nonescalated findings. However, GAO said it found that the regional office with the fewest reactors and the fewest inspection hours had the most nonescalated findings.

NRC and industry officials have raised concerns that the differences may also be due to differences in how NRC staff identify and resolve findings. NRC has taken some steps to examine the consistency of its oversight. For example, in 2009, the four regional offices explored how the regional offices identify and assess inspection findings. However, NRC has not conducted a comprehensive analysis of the causes of the differences in the number of nonescalated findings across regions, GAO noted.

Under federal standards for internal control, managers are to compare actual performance with planned or expected results throughout the organization and analyze significant differences. Without such an analysis, NRC does not know whether its regional offices are applying regulations and guidance consistently.

The NRC has both formal and informal methods for developing lessons learned to improve its oversight. Formal methods include agency wide programs, annual and biennial assessments, and special initiatives. Informal methods include reaching out to peers and technical experts across the agency and accessing various agency databases.

GAO finds problems with information access for NRC officials

Although NRC guidance directs inspectors to use information in agency databases on past experiences to plan and conduct inspection activities, inspectors face challenges accessing this information, which may limit their ability to use it, GAO said. For example, several NRC inspectors reported contacting other inspectors informally because NRC’s database search tools contain limited instructions and do not ensure thorough results. “Without better search tools, inspectors may overly rely on information available through informal channels,” GAO said.

The 2011 tidal wave-induced disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant demonstrated that unexpected nuclear accidents with extreme consequences can occur and, thus, heightened concerns about NRC’s ability to oversee the safety of U.S. commercial nuclear power reactors, GAO said about why it did this report.

GAO recommends, among other things, that NRC analyze the causes of differences in identifying and resolving findings across regional offices and address these differences, and that it improve its database search tools. NRC agreed with GAO’s recommendations.

The GAO recommended:

  • To improve NRC’s oversight processes, and to better meet its goal of implementing objective and consistent oversight, the NRC commissioners should direct agency managers to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the causes of the differences in the identification and resolution of findings.
  • To improve NRC’s oversight processes, and to improve transparency and better enable the public, Congress, and others to independently track findings, all documents related to the findings, and the findings’ resolution, the NRC commissioners should direct the agency to either modify NRC’s publicly available recordkeeping system to do so or develop a publicly accessible tool that does so.
  • To improve NRC’s oversight processes, and to help NRC staff more efficiently use past experiences in their oversight activities, the NRC commissioners should direct agency officials to evaluate the challenges inspectors face in retrieving all relevant information on plant performance and previous oversight activities and improve its systems accordingly to address these challenges.

The report was initially sent to: Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Chairman Committee on Environment and Public Works; Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Chairman Subcommittee on Oversight, Committee on Environment and Public Works; Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; and Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vermont.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.