Nuclear Regulation:

Preventing Problem Plants Requires More Effective NRC Action

RCED-97-145: Published: May 30, 1997. Publicly Released: Jun 17, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) oversight of the nuclear power industry, focusing on how NRC: (1) defines nuclear safety; (2) measures and monitors the safety condition of nuclear plants; and (3) uses its knowledge of safety conditions to ensure the safety of nuclear plants.

GAO noted that: (1) to achieve NRC's safety mission, it is critical that NRC maintain a high degree of confidence in its regulatory program's ability to ensure that the nuclear industry performs to high safety standards; (2) while GAO is not making judgments on the safety of plants, the many safety problems identified in some plants raises questions about whether NRC's regulatory program is working as it should; (3) determining the safety of plants is difficult because NRC does not precisely define safety; (4) instead, NRC presumes that plants are safe if they operate within their approved designs and in accordance with NRC's regulations; (5) according to recent findings in some plants, NRC is no longer confident that all plants are still operating as designed and is requiring all 110 nuclear plant licensees to certify that they are maintaining their plants in accordance with their approved plant designs; (6) NRC is also concerned that as nuclear plant owners pursue cost-cutting strategies to meet future competition, safety priorities may be jeopardized; (7) NRC is responsible for laying out clear requirements for operating nuclear plants and for overseeing its licensees to ensure that they are performing as they should; (8) NRC has on-site inspectors that prepare reports on the plants' activities about every 6 weeks, and comprehensive assessments are assembled every 12 to 24 months for all nuclear plants; (9) NRC also collects and publishes safety performance indicators; (10) these data, which are supplied by the licensees, show that the overall safety performance of the nuclear industry, is good and improving but that some plants are chronically poor performers; (11) currently, NRC has placed 14 nuclear plants on its "Watch List," which includes those plants whose declining safety performance triggers additional oversight attention by NRC; (12) 37 percent of the nation's nuclear plants have been on the list at some point over the past 11 years, and many of these plants have stayed on the list for many years; (13) for some plants, NRC has not taken aggressive enforcement action to force the licensees to fix their long-standing safety problems on a timely basis; (14) as a result, the plants' conditions have worsened, making safety margins smaller; (15) NRC's ongoing reforms, which include expanding its inspection program and revamping its process for identifying plants with long-standing safety problems, show a strong commitment to strengthen NRC's oversight capability; and (16) achieving fundamental reform starts with holding licensees accountable for fixing their plants' problems more promptly and addressing management issues more directly.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To enhance licensees' accountability, the Commissioners of NRC should direct NRC staff to develop strategies to more aggressively act on safety deficiencies when they are discovered. To achieve this goal, NRC should require inspection reports to fully document for all plants the status of the licensees' actions to address identified problems under NRC's corrective action requirements, including timetables for the completion of corrective actions and how NRC will respond to nonconformance with planned actions.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC reports that it has given its inspectors more guidance for assessing the effectiveness of a licensee's corrective action program by focusing on what a licensee has done, as opposed to what it plans to do. NRC also says it is developing ways to better identify and track licensing commitments and to verify their implementation. However, NRC is not tracking the status of corrective actions for all licensee-identified issues, including how NRC would respond to non-conformances with planned actions. Instead, NRC plans to periodically review a sample of NRC and licensee identified issues to ensure that the licensee has taken appropriate corrective action.

    Recommendation: To enhance licensees' accountability, the Commissioners of NRC should direct NRC staff to develop strategies to more aggressively act on safety deficiencies when they are discovered. To achieve this goal, NRC should make licensees' responsiveness to identified problems a major feature of the information provided to the participants of the Senior Management Meetings, including how NRC will respond if problems go uncorrected. For example, NRC should describe the range of sanctions that it will impose on the licensees on the basis of the potential seriousness of their failure to resolve problems within a predetermined time. These sanctions should range from assessing fines to involuntary shutdown of the plant.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC developed a nuclear power plant performance evaluation template and strengthened its corrective action evaluation criteria, and the agency is developing better performance trending indicators that could provide a more objective basis for judging whether a plant should be placed on or removed from the NRC Watch List. NRC says that these improved indicators and objective will prompt more effective enforcement actions. While these actions are useful, NRC rejected the recommendation that it should advise licensees what sanctions will be imposed if they do not correct their problems. NRC conducted pilots to improve its inspection, assessment, and enforcement processes and have developed new guidance.

    Recommendation: To enhance licensees' accountability, the Commissioners of NRC should direct NRC staff to develop strategies to more aggressively act on safety deficiencies when they are discovered. To achieve this goal, NRC should require that the assessment of management's competency and performance be a mandatory component of NRC's inspection process.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: While NRC agrees that management competency is "instrumental" to a nuclear plant licensee's safety performance, it has rejected including the inclusion measurement of management as part of its inspection process. NRC reports that such an assessment would not result in a "comprehensive and direct assessment of licensee management performance."

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